Roy Hodgson and his 23 man England squad arrived at the camp in Krakow ready to take on France in their opening group match. England traveled from the city center of Krakow in Poland and were ready to play in the Donbass Arena in Ukraine. The home of Shakhtar Donetsk was a suitable setting for the meeting of the 2 favorites to progress from the group. The game kicked off and France settled into an early rhythm but the England side Roy Hodgson had set out was ready to combat the French passing and nullified the threat of Frank Ribery, Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri.
It took England 30 minutes to score when a foul gave England a free kick on the right side of the French half and captain Steven Gerrard whipped in a cross that met Joleon Lescott's run. The Manchester City defender nodded the ball straight past Lyon stopper Lloris and into the net and England looked like a team that could provide a tough match for the French. However, their lead only lasted 9 minutes when some intricate passing from the French involving Frank Ribery, Patrice Evra and Samir Nasri gave the Manchester City star Nasri enough space to shoot. His shot went through a crowded penalty area and beat England goalkeeper Joe Hart at his near post. The rest of the first half was very tame and neither side really threatened the other teams' goal.
The second half too was an exhibition of defensive play as neither team wanted to risk conceding another goal and potentially losing the first group match. In the other match in the group co-hosts Ukraine had beaten Sweden and were sitting on top of Group D after the first game. England would play them in the last game of the group and Sweden next in the Olympic Stadium in Kiev.
Both England and Sweden went into this game needing points to have a chance of progressing from group D and both managers knew how important 3 points would be in this match. England changed their side and introduced Liverpool's Andy Carroll to the front line to partner Danny Welbeck. Rodgson brought in Andy Carroll becasue the Swedish defenders were comparitively shorter than the Liverpool number 9, his aerial presence would provide England with more options against the Sweden side. Just 23 minutes into the game Steven Gerrard picked out his club mate from a cross from a similar position to where he crossed for Joleon Lescott against France, but this time the Liverpool man out jumped his marker and the ball flew past Iskasson and into the net. Criticized for not scoring as much as he should have, Carroll ran to his team mates and celebrated a very important goal. England were dominant for the remainder of the first half and they looked a class above the Swedes. The second half started very badly for England when Glen Johnson deflected the ball into his own net. Sweden were level for 10 minutes before Sebastian Larsson swung in a beautiful free kick which found Olof Meberg unmarked at the back post who scored. England were in disarray. England needed to do something, quickly.
Theo Walcott was substituted on for James Milner and he burst onto the pitch scoring within 3 minutes of coming on. The Arsenal forward received the ball outside the box after a corner and he thumped the ball over the defenders and it beat Isaksson easily. At 2-2, England were in the ascendancy, Walcott again received the ball and he produced another stroke of magic taking the ball past one defender to the goal line and crossing for the incoming Welbeck who finished to move with a sophisticated swivel and flicked the ball in off the back of his leg. The comeback was complete. England held on to their lead for the last 12 minutes and took the 3 points,this meant that they only needed a point to go through in their last game against Ukraine.
Qualification to the knock out stages was still a possibility for co-hosts Ukraine so they fielded an attacking eleven to try and stifle England and hope that Sweden beat France so that they could progress. Ukraine started well and dominated possession of the ball but couldn't create too much for their forwards to make into a chance. England withstood the pressure and played how they set out to play. The inclusion of the preciously suspended Wayne Rooney was controversial where he took the place of Andy Carroll who had performed well in the game before, but the star scored just after half time when Steven Gerrard beat a Ukrainian defender and belted a low cross in which took 2 wicked deflections from defenders and beat the helpless goalkeeper and came to Rooney showing him an open goal. He headed the ball in and despite looking very rusty and lacking match fitness, the Manchester United forward played on and slowly grew into the game.
Ukraine mounted the pressure on England in the last 15 minutes but England formed 2 lines of four players and the Ukraine attack could not beat the solid defense. England played out the last quarter of an hour and progressed top of their group because Sweden had beaten France.
The flat 4-4-2 formation England played was a way of containing Italy and their front men, but it would leave a more defensive player by the name of Andrea Pirlo with aches of space. Through out the whole match, Pirlo produced passes to all areas of the pitch with ease, no one closed him down in a white shirt and he asserted the Italian dominance on the match. Italy created many a chance and squandered them all, Mario Balotelli was played through 1v 1 with Joe Hart but John Terry managed to recover and block the talented youngsters' shot. Daniele De Rossi couldn't convert a close range volley in the six yard box and his team mate Riccardo Montilivo was pressured off the rebound as he nearly found row Z in the stands with the return shot.
England found very little in the form of attack and couldn't keep possession enough to really threaten the Italian goal. One chance fell to Glen Johnson who took the ball up to the Italian box and passed it to Milner who crossed in, the ball was stuck just under Johnson's feet and he could only flick up the ball straight to Gianliugi Buffon who made an easy save.
After 90 minutes, neither side could break the dead-lock. Extra time was required to try and separate the teams and only Italy posed a threat to their opponents. England absorbed most of the pressure, rarely allowing Italy to get too close to their goal but even an extra 30 minutes could not change the score line. Penalties were needed to determine a winner of this tie.
Mario Balotelli was the first player to take the longest walk in football and he walked up with a swagger showing his arrogance and confidence. He stuttered in his run up and placed the ball into the corner of the net to Joe Hart's right and turned around abruptly and strolled back to his team mates. Steven Gerrard replied with a well placed drive into the same corner. With the score level Riccardo Montilivo stepped up but he blasted his shot wide of the goal and England believed they could pull off a stunning penalty shoot out victory. Rooney took the next penalty and he rifled his shot into the top right corner of the goal and Italy looked to be in danger of losing the tie. To try and assure the rest of the Italian squad, Andrea Pirlo took the next penalty and he pulled of an audacious chip over Joe Hart under immense pressure. Nerves did not seem to affect the experienced Italian, whereas Ashley Young walked up for the next penalty. He smashed his shot and it crashed against the cross bar and this leveled the scores. Substitute Nocerino took his penalty next and well assured, he scored. Ashley Cole was under some pressure at this point and if he missed Italy would need to score one and then they would win. Cole tamely placed his penalty to Buffon's left and the Italian saved the penalty comfortably. Alessandro Diamanti was the last Italian to take a penalty and he stepped up and scored his penalty. England, again, had been dumped out of a tournament on penalties.
England were rightly beaten by a better team than themselves but because there were so many things that were problems for this side, England could afford to be pleased with their progress and effort in the tournament. No one expected England to get beyond the Quarter Finals and it would have been an injustice to Italy had they done so. Euro 2012 was certainly a turning point for England because now that some of our key players are getting older like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, they might not be there for us in the next tournament. We used a blend of youth and experience in Euro 2012 and young players like Alex Oxlade Chamberlain and Phil Jones were worthy additions to the squad but they will improve as players and will one day be in the same position as Gerrard and Lampard. England now need to integrate these younger players into the team and slowly move out the older generation of England players so that the next can blossom because this could be the older generations' last major International tournament but it will be the first of many for the young players who will take the places of the older players. The 2014 World Cup should show us just how well England do this.
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