England Struggle to Spark but Avoid Getting Burnt by Ukraine at Wembley

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England Struggle to Spark but Avoid Getting Burnt by Ukraine at Wembley
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

England put in their most underwhelming performance of Roy Hodgson's reign at manager against Ukraine, but they still managed to preserve his unbeaten record by salvaging a 1-1 in their World Cup qualifier.

England had won all five of their previous World Cup qualifiers at the new Wembley stadium, and they were yet to taste defeat in eight games under Hodgson (their exit from Euro 2012 to Italy on penalties is officially recorded as a draw).

But it took Frank Lampard's late penalty to cancel out Ievgenii Konoplianka's first-half opener and rescue a point in Group H.

It was a performance in which England tried to eschew the cautious approach which had been their hallmark over the summer, but this was the first time they were required to take the game to an opponent of reasonable quality. In that respect they came up short. 

Anyone who was expecting Tuesday's game against Ukraine to be a formality clearly either has a short memory or did not see their last meeting in Donetsk back in June. In that final Group D match at the Euros, the co-hosts wasted a full 50 minutes of game respecting whatever vestige of an international reputation England still had.

Once they actually set about the business of claiming the win they needed to progress into the quarterfinals, they ran the game and—even with Marko Devic's goal not given despite it crossing the line—Oleg Blokhin's side should have claimed the victory they needed.

That night at the Donbass Arena they finished the match having had twice as many shots as England and nearly 60 percent of the possession, but Wayne Rooney's 48th-minute header was the difference, as the game finished 1-0 to England.

At Wembley last night, Ukraine did not make the same mistake again, just as Blokhin had vowed before kick-off. They were aggressive and purposeful with the ball and organised off it.

Veteran midfielder Anatoliy Tymoschuk extended his record number of caps to 121, and celebrated the feat by marking Tom Cleverley out of the game. On the few occasions that England's aspiring No.10 did escape the Bayern Munich man's clutches, he fluffed his lines with two poor efforts on goal and another which struck the outside of the post.

Cleverley was handed a role further up the field than he is used to playing at Manchester United. Indeed, he has barely played behind the striker at all in his loan spells at Wigan Athletic, Watford or Leicester City either.

With England disjointed in attack and the midfield partnership of Steven Gerrard and Lampard working about as well as it has at any time over the past decade, Ukraine took full advantage. Their lead via Konoplianka's wonderful curling strike on 38 minutes was deserved in spite of England having more of the possession by that stage.

It was not until Cleverley was replaced by his club colleague Danny Welbeck just after the hour mark—and subsequently Daniel Sturridge replacing the ineffectual Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain—that some urgency began to find its way into the England team.

They may not have been very inventive, but the increased pressure finally had them looking like a team capable of scoring. Welbeck should have put it in goal when he teed himself up inside the area, only to see his shot crash off the post. However, shortly thereafter, he forced the handball from Yevgen Khacheridi which gave England a penalty with five minutes to go.

Lampard, who had contributed little of note beyond giving the ball away in the build-up to Ukraine's opener, slammed home the spot-kick to salvage a point and maintain Hodgson's unbeaten record as England manager.

One first for Hodgson's tenure was the first red card—handed to Gerrard for a second yellow card—but as that means he will only miss the San Marino game, the boss can be mightily relieved that it came now rather than before a key fixture.

England showed enough intention to play better football than they did during their safety-first campaign at Euro 2012, but they seem unable to make the transition with any degree of certainty.

They had enough quality to avoid defeat against a gifted but flawed Ukraine team, but the draw highlighted the work which needs to be done not only in qualifying for Brazil 2014 but also being a decent proposition once they get there.

It looks like it will be a long time before this England squad catches fire—if indeed it ever does—but at least they avoided their first home game since Euro 2012 ending as a damp squib.

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