The big man is back. Wayne Rooney is back with a bang, with a goal that headed England into the quarter-finals of this gripping Euro 2012 where they meet Italy on Sunday in Kiev.
The big man is back. Wayne Rooney is back with a bang, with a goal that headed England into the quarter-finals of this gripping Euro 2012 where they meet Italy on Sunday in Kiev. From no-hopers to group winners; some turnaround. No wonder the England fans chanted Roy Hodgson's name incessantly for the last 10 minutes.
Hodgson's men were wretched in the first half, vastly improved in the second when Rooney swooped to head in a cross from the magnificent Steven Gerrard, who delivered one of his most dynamic displays for England. There was a feeling that Lady Luck was winking flirtatiously at England when officials somehow failed to notice that Marko Devic's shot had crossed the line when cleared by John Terry. Ukraine were enraged, and the FA's long campaign for goal-line technology acquired more adherents.
By the end, the England fans were chanting "football's coming home'', genuinely believing that the years of hurt can end. With Gerrard in this form, and Rooney returning, England are beginning to believe.
Amidst the celebrations for England's goal three minutes into the second half, Rooney seemed to mimic applying some hair-spray.
England's performance had been simply hair-raising until then.
Hodgson's men had reached the safety of half-time like a boxer on the ropes gratefully hearing the bell. They had absorbed a real pummeling, being grateful to some important interceptions by Terry and Ukraine's tendency to place shots either too close to Joe Hart or over.
It was a storm, a siege, a test of England character. Ukraine were hardly Spain but they were fired up, running on the adrenalin of a nation. The Ukraine anthem had sent an electric current sweeping through the Donbass Arena. England fans had immediately hit back, launching into a raucous rendition of "Roy Hodgson's Barmy Army''. All present within this magnificent stadium had known what was at stake: pride, survival in the competition.
The tension was inescapable. Gerrard rose above Yevhen Konoplyanka. Glen Johnson's face froze in momentary frustration when he accidentally put the ball out. The tempo was breathless, the demands on stamina intense. Ashley Young tracked back to win the ball. Danny Welbeck raced back to fouled Yaroslav Rakitskiy. Rooney, shaking off some rust, briefly glided past Denys Garmash, who then won it back.
England were in the thick of a tempest, fighting to protect Hart's area. Wave after blue wave rolled across this expensive piece of Ukrainian parkland. Garmash shot over. Terry covered well to end the danger flowing from Andriy Yarmolenko's clever feet. Scott Parker, otherwise enduring one of his poorest halves, blocked Marko Devic's drive with his thigh.
England broke out. Rooney chipped the ball wide to Johnson, whose cross to the far post was hurried inelegantly to safety by Oleh Gusev. Back came Ukraine. Konoplyanka let fly, his shot crashing into Terry, catching him alarmingly close to his arm.
Like creatures emerging from hibernation, England slowly arrived blinking in the opposition half. Johnson, roaming upfield, was brought down by Rakitskiy, gifting Gerrard a chance to whip in one of his free-kick specials. Rooney just failed to make contact, but Andriy Pyatov's response in the Ukraine goal was hardly impressive, the keeper shoveling it out for a corner. Such uncertainty was to prove costly early in the second half.
At least England were looking a threat rather than tourists who had wandered in, curious as to what the noise was all about. England really should have scored. Young did the hard work on the left, creating space, measuring his cross superbly towards Rooney near the far post. This was it, the moment the No?10 had craved during his exile. His eyes followed the ball. His rise to meet it was well-timed. Yet his headed finish was so poor, the ball directed well wide. A sigh fell from every Englishman's lips.
Rooney was to make amends later but this was a bad miss. Yarmolenko almost punished England but his shot was straight at Hart. England then dragged the ball down the other end as if it were a reluctant child. Gerrard swept over a corner which Terry headed over.
Back came Ukraine. Always. Willed on by their fans, by a whole nation. Garmash shot wide. Oleg Blokhin was almost on the pitch, urging his team forward. It was a surprise that the half-time statistics revealed Ukraine to have enjoyed the ball's company for only 57 per cent of the time. It seemed so much more. In one particularly excruciating period, James Milner, Johnson and Rooney gave the ball away in quick succession. At one point, an over-eager ball-boy threw another ball on to the pitch as if to give England something to do while Ukraine had possession.
No matter. England had survived to the break, to a Hodgson talk, to fight another half, to seize the lead after 48 minutes. Gerrard made the goal, turning Yarmolenko and drilling a cross over, the ball flying past Konoplyanka. It then took a series of deviations, catching the leaping Yevhen Selin, then Yevhen Khacheridi before Pyatov made matters even worse, fumbling it across for Rooney to apply the close-range header.
Controversy then ensued. When Devic beat Hart, the ball looped goalwards, crossing fractionally over the line before Terry's left boot hooked it clear. The case for goalline technology has long been undeniable and was strengthened here. Uefa's additional assistant referees were about as much use as a chocolate samovah. Milevskiy may have been offside in the build-up but that was missed as well. In the technical area, Blokhin looked like he wanted to knock someone's block off.
As the crowd chanted for "Sheva", England swarmed forward confidently. When Milner's cross was pushed away, Ashley Cole almost marked becoming England's most experienced tournament player with 21 displays with a fine left-footed goal but Pyatov saved. Then Hart somehow kept Konoplyanka's shot out with Lescott arriving on time to clear.
With 10 minutes remaining, and hope for Ukraine draining, Hodgson set them another test, sending on Andy Carroll for the tiring Welbeck.
"Let's all do the Welbeck" chanted the England fans, thrusting their arms out in honour of the youngster's goal celebration. And then it started again: "Roy Hodgson's Barmy Army".
Ukraine began to dissolve into despair. Shevchenko was cautioned for a clattering Young. England fans redoubled their singing, launching into "we're not going home".