It should not be construed as arrogance to suggest England’s biggest enemy in tonight’s quarter-final against Ukraine may end up being themselves. In the immediate aftermath of Tuesday night’s emotionally-charged win against Germany, Gareth Southgate stressed the importance of his squad keeping their feet on the ground while recognising the dangerous position they now find themselves in.
Off the back of one win over an old rival, expectation levels have skyrocketed. The concerns around an attack lacking dynamism during the group stage evaporated immediately, Harry Kane made doubts around his sharpness irrelevant with one close-range header, while questions around the non-selection of Jadon Sancho and decision to use Jack Grealish as an impact player off the bench were suddenly deemed unimportant. Belief has returned, a dangerous sensation for a nation accustomed to more than half a century of disappointment.
Ukraine are solid, well organised and united but in terms of raw ability this appears the most skewed of the four quarter-finals. If only it was that simple. These games are not won on reputation, club status or statistics, and scripts of old indicate that what should be a smooth, freshly-paved road to the last four may end up being far more treacherous.
“Right from the final whistle the other day the players were already talking and preparing for the next game,” Southgate said last night. “Recognising that, although we loved the experience of the last game, you move on quickly in the tournament. We’re not at the point we want to be yet. It’s not been too difficult to refocus people. The opportunity is there.”
Arsenal teenager Bukayo Saka is the only doubt having picked up a knock in training yesterday and there are no concerns around physical fatigue. The emotional toll of beating Germany, however, may be an entirely different matter.
“We had six days prep before the last game and although the game the other day was intense it was only 90 minutes,” Southgate said. “Everyone is fine in terms of physical load. We’ve got a strong squad and bench as well. The heat here will be a little bit of a factor by the end of the game. The players are physically in a good position.”
Which brings us to Mason Mount’s likely return. Southgate is revert to a back four tonight, increasing the Chelsea man’s chances of being redrafted significantly. The 22-year-old has had five days with the group since the conclusion of a week-long quarantine that kept him out of the Czech Republic win and as an unrisked substitute against Germany.
Entering this tournament Mount was one of England’s undroppables, the conduit between a holding midfield lacking creativity and a rich attack. But Grealish’s elevation to darling of Wembley, Raheem Sterling’s fine form and the system deployed in the round of 16 has made his role not quite as guaranteed.
“It’s impossible to keep everyone happy and a team everyone will agree with,” Southgate said last night in reference to Grealish and Phil Foden not yet spending a minute on the pitch together. “We’ve got to pick a team for the right moment…it’s not an easy situation but a strong situation for us as a team.”
Mount has a track record of being unfazed in pressured situations though and his fringe involvement against Germany, leaving him fresh in legs and mind, makes a recall logical.
That England will be playing in front of a sparse crowd at Rome’s Olympic Stadium could present another challenge, one that every other team has experienced but they have thus far been spared. Southgate’s team have had the unique privilege of playing every game at home so far, in front of an increasing number of supporters. And while Wembley next Wednesday looms for this evening’s victor, there will be no deafening roar to greet them in the Italian capital. (On the flip side there are at least unlikely to be any boos when they kneel before kick off.)
“Obviously it’ll be more like the size of crowd at Wembley in the group stage but without many England supporters,” Southgate said. “A very different experience for us but our fans are used to playing in the Premier League with no fans. We have some good leaders in this squad. It doesn’t matter too much to us. We know it’s a fabulous stadium to play in, a great venue, an historic arena. We look forward to playing the game.”
Ukraine look comfortable in their guise as underdogs and Andriy Shevchenko last night played down a question over whether his pride has been hurt by England being considered such overwhelming favourites. The former Chelsea striker, who has transformed the national side since a dismal showing in this tournament five years ago, does hope any neutral Italians will be taking their side and he waved off concerns over the fitness of West Ham United winger Andriy Yarmolenko after he came off late in the extra-time win over Sweden.
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“One of the best teams at this Euro, one of the most balanced teams,” Shevchenko said of England. “They have amazing players and I’d like to note the work of the head coach Gareth Southgate for gathering an amazing group and a team that plays modern football. England are in one of the best moments of their history.
“English football is on the up now. We saw an amazing Champions League final between Man City and Chelsea, how much speed they have and their performance. Tomorrow will be the hardest game for us against a very strong opponent.”
An attempt to kill them with praise, perhaps? “We totally understand the team we’ll play against but we also know we’re a strong side,” Shevchenko added. “We’ve already shown our character at this tournament, we showed the principles of our game and we’ll never change that. It’s the basis for our team. I know how difficult the game will be for us but our players have character. We’ll try to show it tomorrow.”