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Jun 15, 2012

England shows its character

KIEV, Ukraine -- Buzzwords in the England camp the past few days included “bold” and “creative.”

For large parts against Sweden at the European Championship at an Olympic Stadium mostly bathed in yellow, England was anything but. However, an inspired substitution of Theo Walcott by manager Roy Hodgson will ensure that most will remember the result only, a frenetic 3-2 England win that knocked the Swedes out of the tournament.

Walcott must have been disheartened when fellow winger, and Gunner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain started against France on Monday. He didn’t show it, though, when he entered in the 61st minute for James Milner with England trailing 2-1. Walcott scored the tying goal with a swerving effort in the 64th minute -- he has that in his locker but Arsenal fans will tell you he doesn’t finish like that very often -- and zoomed past two Swedish defenders to set up Danny Welbeck’s cheeky match winner, the “creative,” in the 78th minute.

Hodgson started two strikers -- the “bold” -- and was duly rewarded when the polarizing Andy Carroll opened the scoring when he got on the end of a brilliant Steven Gerrard cross that he finished with a wonderful header. Liverpool supporters wish they would see that more often among the two club teammates.

 

Sweden’s Olof Mellberg, an unlikely goal scorer, netted twice in 10 second-half minutes -- though one of those goals was later credited as an own goal by Glen Johnson -- to leave England rocking.

Yet at the final whistle, 3,000 England fans were louder than Sweden’s 20,000. “England, England,” they roared like more than Three Lions.

Running Battle: You get the feeling that Mellberg was looking forward to confronting Carroll. Yes, Mellberg, who spent many years in the EPL with Aston Villa, is paid first to defend.

Sure enough, the two battled the entire evening, with the bearded, no-nonsense Mellberg lucky not to earn a yellow card in the 10th minute for hauling down the ponytailed wonder. He didn’t play the ball -- nor did he have any intention. Later in the half, Carroll was left on the ground again as Mellberg did more punishing.

Mellberg and Sweden’s coaching staff will be livid with Carroll’s goal. Right back Andreas Granqvist was caught napping, allowing Carroll to nestle between the No. 4 and Mellberg. Of the past 10 goals conceded by Sweden, seven are of the aerial variety.

Sweden would have known better than to give Gerrard so much time on the cross. With so much space around him, it resembled a free kick. Gerrard’s cross accounted for Joleon Lescott’s goal versus France too.

Mellberg was at fault on Welbeck’s winner as well. It was a great finish, but Mellberg was his marker.

Zlatan, Zlatan: In flashes, Swedish enigma Zlatan Ibrahimovic proved how good he can be. His neat footwork deceived England’s players on several occasions, and John Terry’s detractors will love the way Ibrahimovic brushed him to the ground in the first half. Terry’s fellow central defender, Lescott, also discovered how strong Ibra is. Ibrahimovic was the most skilled player on the pitch.

That was the good Zlatan. The bad? Three times with the ball at his feet in the first half and Sweden in a dangerous position, Ibrahimovic’s final touch let him down.

Even if he’ll be credited with an assist on Mellberg’s goal, Ibra didn’t mean to make the pass. He received the ball back because his free kick in a promising position crashed into the wall.

In many ways, it was a typical Ibrahimovic night.

Ordinary Joe: Is Joe Hart cracking? Hart, presumed to be a safe pair of hands in England’s goal, should have done better on Mellberg’s goal. He just got a piece of it instead of putting it out of the danger zone.

Not exactly David Seaman or Robert Green at recent World Cups, but a keeper of his stature will be disappointed. Let’s not forget that Hart flapped at a cross versus France.

Wayne’s World: Needing only a draw Tuesday to advance to the quarterfinals, how bold and creative will Hodgson be when England faces Ukraine? With Wayne Rooney returning, will he act as a lone striker or partner another? If it’s the latter, Hodgson can build on Rooney’s relationship with club teammate Welbeck. Would he dare play Rooney and Carroll together?

And no, even with England unbeaten in the past four games -- when Rooney hasn’t started -- there is no chance of him not playing. Getting out of the group stage is one thing. Topping the likes of Germany and Spain is another.

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