AFTER all the nightmares England fans have endured in recent times, Roy Hodgson wants to give his country "something to dream about" on Tuesday night, exciting them and giving them pride in those who wear the Three Lions. He wants to give them a place in the quarter-finals of these epic Euros.
He knows the nation is watching and wants to turn their reverie into reality. England need only a point in the splendid Donbass Arena to qualify for the last eight while Ukraine must win. Pressure intensifies on both sides. “We have got a cup final,’’ observed Hodgson. All quiet on the Eastern front? No chance.
England’s manager has somehow reversed the usual process and looks younger, even fresher in the face, than when accepting the ‘Impossible Job’ two months ago. An unbeaten four-game run, including canny tactics and successful substitutions, has enhanced his credibility, also reminding everyone of his international experience with Switzerland, United Arab Emirates and Finland.
He knows what he is doing. Hodgson has looked at Ukraine, examined their flawed defence, and chosen to unleash pace at them in the form of Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck.
Hodgson has managed the fine balance of instilling belief in a scarred dressing room while not letting praise soften his players.
When Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney and their white-liveried ilk stride out amid the baying crowd there will be no complacency colouring their thoughts. Hodgson has warned them.
“If we think this is going to be an easier game for some reason then we are fooling ourselves,’’ England’s manager said on Monday night. “We have seen in the Euros every game is a tough game. There have been plenty of surprises already.
“We believe we have done enough to go on but Holland thought they could. Russia thought they could. We would all be disappointed now if we had to take the plane home. There would be an enormous amount of dissatisfaction.
“We believe in ourselves and we want to do well. In some ways it’s rather nice that people back home are hoping and even believing we can do well and we’re giving them something to dream about and cling on to. We’ll be ready for the game, the players will be 100 per cent concentrated. I have made it clear to the players that nothing other than that will be good enough.
“There will be no questioning their desire to win the game. But unfortunately that doesn’t always give you the victory you want. The Ukrainians will be fired up for the game as well. They also want to win it because they don’t want to go out in front of their home crowd.”
For all the initial noise, the Donbass is hardly a fortress for Andrei Shevchenko and co. Of their five games there, Ukraine have lost three and drawn two. For all the talk of passionate home support, some of it will be Russian, who are expected to favour the English.
Hodgson was focusing on potential pitfalls particularly those associated with playing for a draw.
“You could be tempted to shut up shop to drop deeper and deeper and clinging on to the result, only to find in the very last minute of the game your opponents get a lucky goal, get given a penalty or a wide free-kick gets deflected into your goal. The dangers are if you sit back you give the initiative to the opposition and you can’t be surprised when sometimes they take it. Our aim will be to try to take the initiative.”
England can. Ukraine’s defence can be turned. There is a logic to unleashing pace on them, pressing them high. Welbeck will fancy his chances of insinuating his sinewy self behind Yevhen Khacheridi and Taras Mikhalik, racing on to balls from the returning Rooney.
In Rooney’s last experience of the Euros he broke his foot as England went out to the hosts, at Portugal in 2004. Rooney is a fine player but he needs to deliver a performance of discipline as well as dynamism here. He owes it not to the country but to himself. It is his career, his reputation, so lend it more substance.
Out wide, if Hodgson decides Theo Walcott is fully fit, the Arsenal flier could run at Yevhen Selin. Ashley Young could get at Ukraine’s right-back Oleg Gusiev, who can get caught out of position.
Young has played in the hole for Hodgson, impressing in the friendly wins over Norway and Belgium, but has yet to seize these Euros. “Now that he’s back in his classic position [on the left] and he has got Wayne playing alongside him – like he does every week – we will see more and more from him,” said Hodgson. “I believe in him because he’s a very good quality wide player, winger, with a lot of ability. I am hoping he will show that ability tomorrow.’’
England will be wary of Ukraine’s ability to go through the gears, looking to find the clever runs of Shevchenko. “They are a very good counter-attacking team,’’ said Hodgson. England will be well prepared.
Hodgson even spoke of how Gary Neville has been contributing to the set-play routines, drawing on his acclaimed analysis of games for television.
“He brings a freshness to the whole thing with his work now at Sky,’’ said Hodgson. “He’s been very, very useful with Ray Lewington on the video analysis.’’
Familiar mantras must be remembered. England must not give the ball away. England must concentrate at set-pieces. England must not sit deep. These are lines that England should write out until seared into their minds. A huge challenge awaits. Yet England have the players and particularly the manager to give their fans something to dream about.