England will leave Ukraine with a point that keeps their hopes of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in their own hands, and that they always looked likely to gleefully accept, despite their manager’s protestations to the contrary in the buildup. That, though, is the only positive thing that can be said about an abject goalless draw in Kiev.
England were missing a host of players, but that provides little excuse for their being unable to string simple passes together, never mind managing to create a single clear chance until a long throw, of all things, into the box led to Frank Lampard heading wide in injury time. Even as a rear-guard effort, it would be hard to praise Roy Hodgson’s men. While Steven Gerrard was an influential presence in front of the back four, there were certainly holes to exploit in the visitors’ backline.
The credit for England emerging with a positive result largely goes to an almost equally uninspiring performance from Ukraine. After four victories under new coach Mykhaylo Fomenko had got Ukraine back into contention, they appeared to be stuck between going for the victory that would suddenly make them favorites to top Group H and settling for a point that gives them the edge on Montenegro for a playoff spot. In the end the latter won out, which may later come back to haunt the hosts.
England now know that victories at Wembley against Poland and Montenegro next month will seal their place in Brazil. Yet, as their record continued of only having beaten minnows San Marino and Moldova in the group, that can be considered far from a formality.
Still, things could be much worse. A nervy night looked a strong possibility coming into the game and there will certainly have been plenty of English hearts pounding when Joe Hart rushed to try and get to a cross first at his near post but instead made contact only with Roman Zozulya. The Ukraine forward was certainly looking for a penalty, but England were lucky that it was not awarded. Hart soon had another nervy moment too as he struggled to claim a ball into the box.
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In a frenetic opening few minutes, Hart’s opposite number Andriy Pyatov was also making a far from commanding early impression. The Shakhtar Donetsk stopper looked uncertain as Ukraine struggled to deal with a succession of England’s corners. The first of them came after Theo Walcott got in behind his full-back but was unable to get a clean strike on the ball.
It was Ukraine getting in behind England’s full-backs that looked the likeliest source of an opening goal in the contest, however. Hodgson’s side should have needed little reminding that wingers Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko were their opponents’ chief threats. Still, Kyle Walker struggled badly to get to grips with the former, while Ashley Cole was also uncharacteristically caught out on more than one occasion on the opposite flank. Indeed, England were fortunate that not one of Konoplyanka’s several in-swinging crosses to the back post failed to lead to a direct effort on Hart’s goal.
After the initial excitement, the match settled into a predictably cagey pattern. With Zozulya cutting an isolated figure up front as Oleg Gusev struggled to support him in an unfamiliar role, Ukraine had little to offer going forward outside of their two dangerous wingers.
England were largely comfortable, but were simply not good enough in possession. In particular, on far too many occasions when the visitors did get into a promising position 30 yards from goal, the critical pass went poorly astray. After a dream first two appearances at international level, Rickie Lambert was discovering the reality of playing up front on his own for England.
Things would not get any better after the break. England became even more passive and their passing even more wayward. The win was there for the taking, but Ukraine were fairing little better. One piece of quality linkup between Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko almost provided a clear chance, before Steven Gerrard made a vital clearance.
More terrible defending from Walker led to him conceding a free-kick right on the edge of the box. Not for the first time the Tottenham defender will have been relieved as Konoplyanka’s effort deflected just wide. Just minutes later the best chance of the evening fell Ukraine’s way. From a corner from the right, Artem Fedetskyy headed a free header from six yards out straight into the ground and into the hands of Hart.
That proved to be the last edgy moment for England, which can savor the result but will likely have to improve to get the remaining wins needed to make sure of their trip to Brazil never mind making any kind of impact when they get there.