Much of the English media spent the days leading up to the match talking as though advancement to the knockout rounds was a foregone conclusion, little more than a formality with the only question being whether Roy Hodgson's side would face off against Spain or Italy in the next round. On the surface, perhaps, it wasn't the most unreasonable assumption. After all, England had beaten the Swedes in their second group game while Ukraine had looked increasingly tired in defeat to France. Plus in FIFA's rankings England sat a lofty 6th while Ukraine was 52nd, reflecting the massive gulf in class between the two sides.
Things didn't go quite as smoothly as some had predicted for England, though—which is likely what many Liverpool fans would have themselves expected following the six months their club spent with Roy Hodgson at the end of 2010. The return of Wayne Rooney also meant a return to the bench for Andy Carroll after a strong showing against Sweden, while out wide Ashley Cole and James Milner—both largely anonymous at the tournament—remained in the lineup while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was left on the bench for the second game in a row after being England's best player in the opener.
The misfiring Scott Parker remained in the starting elven, too, despite being repeatedly exposed by both of England's earlier opponents, leading to an entirely predictable line-up that as against France on matchday four again saw only Steven Gerrard and Glen Johnson start from the Liverpool contingent. Ukraine, meanwhile, was forced to start a depleted lineup following their disappointing second half showing against France, as the clearly exhausted Andriy Shevchenko and Andriy Voronin were both unable to start.
And in the end, if England's starting eleven was less than wholly surprising, so too was the immediate retreat back towards their own penalty area as they began the night defending deep and passive against a Ukrainian side that needed to score to advance. The idea of setting up to play on the counter against a side that needed to attack might not have been an entirely poor one, but England's extreme passivity and increasingly deep back line made it seem less as though they were looking to set up chances to score on the break and more as though they were concerned with trying to nurse a nil-nil scoreline through the entire ninety minutes.
Despite nearly fifty spots between the two nations in FIFA's rankings and that Ukraine likely wouldn't have made it to this year's Euros were they not the host, for much of the opening period they looked the only side likely to score a goal. Unlike against France, however, England's deep defence managed to hold out despite a handful of nervy moments, and so it came about that 27 minutes in the best chance of the opening half fell to Wayne Rooney. But instead of finding the goal, his unmarked header from the edge of the six-yard box and with the goalkeeper stranded flew wide of the post and Ukraine quickly re-asserted themselves. No breakthrough would come for either side, however, and the first half ended with only Ukraine interested in playing football but zeros all around on the scoreboard.
No changes came for either side to start the second half, despite that England's approach of sitting deep and defending passively seemed well suited to sticking Andy Carroll up front in place of Danny Welbeck and hoping the tall striker could knock a ball or two down for Wayne Rooney. Meanwhile for Ukraine, Shevchenko remained in reserve for a hoped-for late push to victory. Those Ukrainian hopes would soon be dashed, as only three minutes into the half Rooney made up for his earlier miss from six feet with a tap-in from six inches.
As with almost everything good in attack for England so far in the tournament, the goal owed a great deal to Steven Gerrard, as the England captain collected the ball off a failed corner and used skill, pace, and power to work room for a cross into the still crowded penalty area. The cross itself was a touch underwhelming following the build-up, but after a pair of deflections and a shocking piece of goalkeeping by Ukraine's Andriy Pyatov, the ball floated free to Rooney at the back post.
On the run of play in it was far from a deserved lead for England, who up until that point had approached the match as though they were heavy underdogs, but for a nation starved for success at the international level the concern for many will be less about the route taken than the end result. For Ukraine, however, it was a deflating moment, and for the next ten minutes any hopes the home support and players had of advancing seemed largely lost. Eventually Ukraine did find their feet again, but needing two goals and with England happy to retreat into their defensive shell, victory was always unlikely for the host nation.
When Artem Milevskiy found himself with only Joe Hart to beat after stepping around John Terry on the break, it seemed as though the comeback might have been on. But when Hart got a piece of the shot it ballooned towards the net and allowed Terry a chance to recover. The linesman and fifth official said he had managed to clear it in time, but replays showed clear green between ball and goal line—Ukraine should have been level. There may have been questions of offside in the buildup, but Ukraine will feel the clearly aggrieved side in the aftermath while England will enjoy this time around being the clear beneficiaries of UEFA and Michel Platini's steadfast opposition to any kind of goal-line technology.
Along with England, France also advanced to the quarter-finals today, though after suffering a 2-0 defeat at the hands of already eliminated Sweden it means that it is Roy Hodgson's side who go through in first place. Heading into the twelfth and final day of the group stage at Euro 2012, most had penciled in Spain versus England and France versus Italy in the first knockout round, but instead it will be France who now take on Spain on Saturday evening while England are set for Italy on Sunday. And now, after setting up as underdogs against sides that on paper they should have been able to play off the park—or, in the case of badly misfiring France, at least go toe-to-toe with—it will be intriguing to see how Roy Hodgson's approach to this summer's Euros holds up in a game where England actually are underdogs.