A solitary Wayne Rooney goal was enough for England to overcome tournament co-hosts Ukraine in Shakhtar Donetsk’s Donbass Arena this evening and top Group D in the process. Pipping France to first place in the group means that Roy Hodgson’s side has avoided Spain and will instead face Cesare Prandelli’s Italy in the quarter-finals on June 24. Well don’t just stand there, get that champagne open. As far as many fans and pundits are concerned, Xavi, Iniesta and Torres would obviously have ripped the Three Lions to shreds, while a showdown with Italy is as good as a bye to the next round.
Firstly, believe it or not, Spain are beatable. Didn’t England come away with a 1-0 victory over La Roja back in November? But why is everyone so keen to avoid playing good sides? After celebrating reaching the Champions League, you’ll hear managers cowering at the prospect of facing the mighty Barcelona in the competition. They’re delighted that their team will be playing at the very top level but heaven forbid they test themselves against those at, er.. the very top level. If you aren’t just travelling to a tournament to make up the numbers and actually have aspirations of winning the bleedin’ thing (controversial thinking, I know), it’s not unthinkable that you might have to play one or two decent sides along the way. A terrifying prospect, but you just might be considered a good team yourselves if you go on to win.
Ok, topping the group is something to be celebrated, particularly given the lack of expectation among supporters going into the Euros. And winning Group D also means England will play their quarter-final on Sunday rather than Saturday, giving Hodgson’s players an extra day’s rest/preparation. But dwelling too much on the possibility that Italy are easier opponents than Spain is a very dangerous game. There were fans and pundits banging on about avoiding Spain before the job had even been done tonight. As much as we love to write teams off in this country, a game against the Azzurri is a tough prospect. And if this awe-inspiring Spanish side is as all-conquering as everyone seems to fear, surely they will pass their way to the final where they could be waiting for Wayne Rooney and co. But let’s hope we can avoid them eh?
Over-emphasising the abilities of Vicente del Bosque’s side puts you at risk of ignoring the threat of the Italians. And to be fair to Roy Hodgson and skipper Steven Gerrard, they did play down the fact that England won’t be playing Spain. Overall, they’ve done well and should enjoy the win. The group stage has been a success and England are in the quarter-finals and have avoided Spain, just like everyone wanted. But the job is far from over and while they might not fear Italy, they ought to at least respect them.