England earned an important point in World Cup qualifying with a 0-0 draw at Ukraine on Tuesday in UEFA Group H.
With the point, the Three Lions moved clear atop the Group H table, one point ahead of Ukraine and Montenegro with two matches remaining. If England win both of their remaining matches—against Montenegro and Poland—they will qualify for the World Cup.
Both will be played on home soil at Wembley in October, but Roy Hodgson's team will have to improve on Tuesday's performance in order to win both matches and secure automatic qualification. On this night, with key attacking players Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge missing out through injury, England rarely threatened.
"I don't think we were that adventurous, but on the other hand it was down to (Ukraine) to be adventurous, not us," Hodgson told TheFA.com. "We had to make certain we controlled them."
Hodgson added: "We had one or two situations and perhaps we didn't quite have enough quality to make that count."
Good result for England with a depleted side but the broken record criticism remains: we give the ball away far, far too cheaply— Oliver Holt (@OllieHolt22) September 10, 2013
England barely resembled a football team tonight but some mechanical urge is keeping them in this 2014 race. Ukraine wasted their chance.— Paul Hayward (@_PaulHayward) September 10, 2013
FT: 0-0. A truly dreadful game of football but, well, #phew. I think we have to revise Mr Dyke's prediction of World Cup glory in 2022— Sam Wallace (@SamWallaceIndy) September 10, 2013
Ukraine 0 England 0. FT. England will be happy with a crucial point but no escaping the fact that this was a very poor game.— Phil McNulty (@philmcnulty) September 10, 2013
The hosts started brightly and nearly carved out a chance in the opening minute.
Yevhen Konoplyanka, who was dangerous on Ukraine's left flank throughout the match, crossed into the middle for Roman Zozulya, who was felled by England goalkeeper Joe Hart in the box. The referee ruled for a corner, and England escaped an early penalty.
Moments later, though, England generated a few chances of their own. Captain Steven Gerrard curled a shot over the bar from long distance before Theo Walcott's poked shot was saved. Defender Gary Cahill then directed a header over the bar from a corner.
It was a frantic start, but it didn't last.
Ukraine continued to threaten on both flanks, with Artem Fedetskiy causing danger down the right. Hart, who recently made high-profile errors for club and country, looked shaky in an early exchange with Gerrard, but the pace quickly dropped for the rest of the half.
Yet as the hosts struggled to break down England's defence, the Three Lions struggled even more to hold possession.
In the first half Hodgson's team completed 77.7 percent of their passes, their worst rate in qualifying, per @OptaJoe.
In the second half, Ukraine continued to push for a winner with no success as England offered little going forward. In the 58th minute, Konoplyanka crossed for Andriy Yarmolenko, who played a no-look pass to Zozulya.
Instead of shooting, though, Zozulya attempted to return the pass to Yarmolenko and the move collapsed.
Konoplyanka saw his curled shot deflected just wide of the post in the 72nd minute. Then he picked out Fedetskiy with a corner two minutes later, only for Fedetskiy to direct his header straight at Hart.
Frank Lampard, making his 100th appearance for England, almost poached a goal from nothing in second-half stoppage time. The veteran midfielder pounced on the ball bouncing in Ukraine's box and sent a header wide of the far post.
It would have been more than England deserved, though. Even with his team at the top of the group, Hodgson must know he has work to do ahead of October's decisive qualifiers.
After the match, Hodgson said he was satisfied with the result. He told TheFA.com:
I thought it was probably a fair result. We did very well and could have won it right at the last minute with Frank Lampard's header—it was a good chance.
Overall it was a big test for the players—and don't forget we had lost seven players from the original squad. A lot of players had come into the squad who aren't normally there and aren't used to this level of performance and this level of pressure.
(I)f we had shown a little bit more composure in the final third or maybe had a Rooney or a Sturridge available, we may even had got the goal we wanted.
Roy Hodgson, England Manager: C+
First, the obvious: It was a dire performance. England struggled mightily to hold onto the ball and rarely threatened Ukraine's goal.
That said, the defence—apart from Kyle Walker, who simply could not cope with Konoplyanka—kept a clean sheet and England did enough to deserve a point. With Danny Welbeck injured, James Milner was a stop-gap selection at best on the left, but Hodgson had limited options available to him.
And in truth, a draw in Kiev is not a bad result.
Still, England have yet to beat a team other than Moldova or San Marino in this qualifying cycle, and based on Tuesday's performance it's not clear how Hodgson will come up with a plan to beat either Montenegro or Poland in October.
Granted, this is a team dealing with a selection crisis in attack, but surely England can do better.
As for the team's failure to hold possession, Hodgson's exclusion of Michael Carrick is confounding.
England got one of the few players in the holding role of world class format .Half carried United in last 2 seasons.Yet can't get a game.— Didi Hamann (@DietmarHamann) September 10, 2013
Joe Hart, England Goalkeeper: B-
Hart had a couple shaky moments early in the match but gathered himself well and eventually turned in a respectable performance.
The first-minute challenge could have turned into a penalty, but Hart eventually became more dependable at the back, punching away crosses and gathering others.
After hearing criticism in recent weeks, his confidence does seem low. A clean sheet will help in that regard.
England Big Picture: C+
New FA chief Greg Dyke last week set a goal of winning the World Cup by 2022. Tuesday's match showed that England have some distance to cover in nine years if they are to make good on the challenge.
Hodgson's squad offered little in the way of creativity and seemed utterly unable to hold the ball. Jack Wilshere was not at his best in midfield, and after a good first half, striker Rickie Lambert was unable to affect the match.
With the draw, however, England top their group with two matches—both at home—left in qualification. That makes the Three Lions a good bet for qualification, even if they don't seem capable of advancing far in next year's World Cup.
More than happy with that result tonight. Top of the group with two home games to play.— michael owen (@themichaelowen) September 10, 2013
England (top) still unbeaten (4 draws from 8), but if they play like this at home against Montenegro and Poland they're in trouble.— Paul Hayward (@_PaulHayward) September 10, 2013
All in all, then, Tuesday's result represents a mixed bag for England. While a clear-headed assessment of the squad will be necessary in the coming weeks, the present reality is not all bad.
For now, though, 2022 will have to remain a goal in the distant future.