Ukraine 0-0 England: Three Lions dig deep to ensure World Cup qualification remains in their own hands

Reuters

It doesn’t get any better. But at least it didn’t get any worse.

This is a campaign which is becoming an England Groundhog Day.

Win one, draw one. Win one, draw one. Win one, draw one. Win one, draw one.

Yes, Roy Hodgson and his men escaped from the Olympic Stadium with the clean sheet and the point that keeps them masters of their own World Cup destiny.

Yes, too, when they seek back to back wins to clinch the golden ticket to Brazil against Montenegro and Poland at Wembley next month, they will hopefully have Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge.

But just as in Warsaw and Podgorica, up against a side that lacked the courage of their open convictions, all the faults that produced Greg Dyke’s cri de coeur last week were evidenced.

A failure to keep the ball. An inability to play any sort of cohesive football. Over-run in midfield. Exposed down the right flank.

Watching England has become an ordeal. Something you only choose to do through the fingers in front of your eyes, peering out in apprehension.

may not have been politically astute – but was perhaps not a bad one.

Rickie Lambert must have known his "fairytale" introduction to international football could not last. He came back down to earth with a fearful bump, isolated but with his lack of touch apparent.

And the belief, devoutly held by many, that Jack Wilshere represents the answer to England’s midfield woes took a pounding. The Arsenal tyro was all at sea, too easily dispossessed, his radar horribly awry.

England were left grateful, not only for the resolution and grit of Gary Cahill, who came of age as an international defender, but also Ukraine’s unwillingness to go for the jugular.

Reuters

At times, it was more than nervous, more than dodgy.

Joe Hart – in the first minute – and the awful Kyle Walker might both have conceded penalties had Portuguese whistler Pedro Proenca been more pliable to the demands of the raucous home fans.

Walker was taken to pieces and then reassembled in a heap by Yevhen Konoplianka; only Cahill’s diligence and reassurance kept Roman Zozulya at bay; raiding right-back Artem Fedetskiy should have scored twice, with the goal at his mercy.

Yet somehow, despite themselves, England clung on, desperately on occasions, but demonstrating they remain a tough side for anyone to beat.

Not that that is good enough. While excuses could be made for the lesson handed out by Italy on the same pitch at Euro 2012 – the last time Hart’s goal was not breached against a serious side – few were acceptable last night.

Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard did hold things together, tightening up as England teetered on the brink, helping keep the Ukrainians at arm’s length for periods.

Effort was unquestioned. Ashley Cole, aided by James Milner, bottled up Andriy Yarmalenko. Theo Walcott’s pace threatened to destabilise the Ukrainians.

But throughout, while Gerrard twice went close before the break, as did Cahill from successive flag-kicks from the skipper, England’s lack of inspiration and invention was palpable.

Action Images

When it mattered, they got lucky. Hart touched Zozulya before shovelling the ball behind in those opening 42 seconds, Fedetskiy made no real contact when he eluded Gerrard at the back post, Cahill made a series of timely, vital, interventions.

Then, after the break, with England rarely any better, Gerrard rescued his team after Konoplianka bamboozled Walker and when the Spurs right-back sent Zozulya tumbling, the winger’s free-kick deflected wide.

When Fedetskiy, unmarked and with the goal at his mercy eight yards out, headed tamely into Hart’s hands, Ukraine seemed to accept the draw.

At the death, England might even have nicked it. Walker’s pace down the right gave Walcott a sniff, the Arsenal man directing just wide on the volley.

Then, in stoppage time, a long throw from Walker found Lampard, who had the chance to crown his 100th cap with a goal, but could not quite glance on target.

In truth, that would have been larceny, entirely undeserved.

The point was what was important and England flew back from Kiev with that precious commodity in their pocket, aware that it is down to them at Wembley. "Realistically", though, would you put your shirt on them doing so?

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