Hope and defensive solidity. Neither are eternal. At times, though, as Italy battered against the door of English resilience, you couldn’t help but feel both were dependent on each other. After an initial twenty minute spell in which the Three Lions looked like an impressive outfit, capable of breaching a seemingly weakly-formed Italian back line, Roy Hodgson’s side let the impetus slip and settled into the possession-surrendering times of old. There’s no doubt it wasn’t what the manager wanted. He instils rigidity and organisation but never planned the incompetence that sometimes infected England’s play. Scott Parker often seemed the worst culprit but the job he was doing off the ball went unnoticed and his replacement, a rarely useful Jordan Henderson, failed to add anything close to dynamism to the game. There were moments, though, when penetration seemed plausible. Glen Johnson had a decent opportunity to scoop the ball past Gianluigi Buffon but while his technique was good, so was the Italian number one’s reaction. He was rarely tested again all afternoon, while Johnson was a key element in keeping Italy a frustrated outfit. What followed this promising English spell, however, was more a lesson in how to employ luck as your saviour and forget the necessities of football. Andrea Pirlo dictated play and, although this is what was expected, the extent to which it happened was embarrassing. Mario Balotelli missed countless chances to put England to the sword and, even when Alessandro Diamanti was introduced, a player loosely described as a West Ham flop, the chances still flowed and the nerves were still fraught. Yet England held out in quite heroic fashion until the cliché that is penalties crept in to seal the inevitable fate. Their victory reflected the performance though and while it will hurt this nation it, for once, will not surprise us. We were emotionally prepared – crippled, in fact – for the doomsday to fall upon us and the only surprise is how late it came. For that, Hodgson should be thanked, if not quite commended. To the final moments in Kiev’s Olympic Stadium, there was an English unity which has been missing for some time and it helped make the job of keeping Cesare Prandelli’s illustrious side at arm’s reach that little bit easier. There was a sense, one that is never really felt when England are on stage, that each player had each other’s back and that there was a particularly specific role for each man to play. John Terry was dogged to the very last and the doubt that surrounded his inclusion in the squad must surely have eroded with every fine shift he has put in while in Ukraine. His customary leaps at the ball in the vain attempt to block it were yet again there for all to see. In a team where defensive unity is the focal point, his influence and assuredness was invaluable. What was also obvious, unfortunately, was that the lack of natural ability in the England ranks was always going to hold Hodgson back. He’s well known for his work with lesser players, and to an extent, lesser budgets, but at a level where every other side possesses an array of world-class players, the job becomes infinitely more difficult. For this, Hodgson should not be lambasted. We must remember that, despite being simply outclassed and outplayed, we were only a decent penalty, or an Andrea Pirlo, away from a semi-final with an impassioned Germany. He worked to his own, and his nation’s, strengths and calmed an otherwise raucous dressing down to a manageable level. He made the right decisions, when they were most necessary, in throwing Andy Carroll in at the deep end against Sweden and then adding Theo Walcott to overturn the deficit. He handled the media admirably, with a certain dignity, like a distant friend with whom he was wary but also approachable. He was, at his very best, English in his mannerisms. So now we must move on. We must buckle up and enjoy the ride. With Hodgson at the helm, it will be no rollercoaster but fulfilment can be gained from the teacups.
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