Before we delve into the match as a whole, we can sum most of it up by talking about how immense Steven Gerrard has been for England. The funny thing was it came in the first tournament where I had given up on seeing it for England. Because in every previous one he's played in, I expected him to be this and he never was. Were there excuses? Sure, there were. Did I think age had caught up? I did. Silly me. I should know better than to doubt ours, and England's captain.
In 2004, I wasn't the only one who looked at a midfield axis of Lampard and Gerrard and thought no one could top it. Especially as Lampard was at the height of his powers then. Of course, I didn't pay attention to how Lampard limited what Gerrard could do. Throw in having his head turned by Chelsea (the first time) and Gerrard didn't have much of a tourney in Portugal. It ended by being subbed against Portugal, denying England a penalty-taker and helping to seal that exit. Before Euro 2004 I joked with friends that if Gerrard could drag a middling Liverpool team into the Champions League places by himself (which he did), he could take England to glory by himself. Whoops.
World Cup 2006 came after his Player of The Year Season, and this time I was sure Gerrard was going to do the heavy lifting for England. But once again Sven chose to hamstring him with Lampard, who was simply awful that tournament. By the time Gerrard scored against T&T, he had netted his one shot whereas Lampard has missed with something close to 20. But Stevie soldiered on, partnering Hargreaves in a Herculian effort to keep Portugal out in the quarters but missing his penalty (to this day, I still think if Gerrard had made his it would have seen England through, and I was shocked that he did miss after the confident way he buried his in the FA Cup Final shootout). So it goes.
Since then, Gerrard had been in and out of the team through injury, and wasn't very good in the qualifying campaign that fell apart for 2008. He got the captaincy for South Africa, but it felt like that went to his head. To be fair to him, those around him were terrible. Rooney's first touch resembled that of an otter's, Lampard was even more of a ghost, and there didn't seem to be anyone else. So you can see why Gerrard felt he had to do it all himself. But that hero game cost England possession too much, or was just too erratic. and he deserved some blame for that shameful exit.
Now? It looks like it was a learning experience. Gerrard is now leading England without making it a one man band. He's been positionally disciplined, heroic in the tackle when he needs to be, and then when he gets the one chance he's set up goals. Three in three games. He knows he might get one or two moments to make the difference with the way England have set out, and he's making it count. Find me a more influential central midfielder this tournament. Don't worry, I'll be here when you get to it.
Can he bring England farther? I don't know. Italy have been impressive this tournament, and won't just watch his crosses zip to England heads the way France, Sweden, and Ukraine have. Cassano has his head on straight, which means he's dangerous. But I've seen Gerrard swallow Pirlo whole before. Past that? Well, if Stevie gets there I won't be the one doubting he can do more.
Part of me is a little worried that the last inspirational football we'll see from Stevie may very well come in an England shirt instead of our red. Maybe, though there's probably more in reserve when called upon. Maybe the short time between matches in this tournament will catch up. But I'm not counting him out any more.
As for the match itself, I know there will be howls about the goal that wasn't or the way England set out and whatever else. But as we said before the tournament, this is what England are now. Disciplined, hard to beat, opportunistic if they're going to win. And it's getting as many results as the head-bloated squads of the past. Ukraine were always going to come out on fire, and the fact that they were restricted to Scud missiles from the parking lot says something about England's reserve. Joe Hart only had one save to make that I can remember, in a match where the hosts had to win. That's not to be discounted.
I've enjoyed this England more than any since 2004, because they're the underdog, and they know it. They're not pretending to be anything they're not, and doing that may take them farther than they've been in a while.
Oh, and they've got Gerrard. Where there's Gerrard, there's a chance.