With Ireland being the first nation out of the tournament, they had the ability to change the entire mindset of Group C as they took on Italy who needed a win to progress above Croatia whilst the top two, Spain and Croatia would take each other on in Gdansk. Spain were the pre-tournament favourites to qualify from this group and win the match and obviously, England fans would have an eye on the qualifiers as they would be a big part of the quarter final ties.
It was Ireland’s participation in the final group match which changed the shape of the group. With Croatia looking unlikely to get anything from the holders and world champions, Spain, Italy’s 2-0 win over Ireland seemed sufficient enough to send them through to the quarter finals, to take on the Group D winners.
Mario Balotelli who has been proclaimed as the “third best Mario” in the tournament behind Croatia’s Mandzukic and Germany’s Gomez who had both netted three times. The Manchester City’s striker unleashed an innovative overhead kick to bamboozle Shay Given and put Italy into an unassailable 2-0 lead after Antonio Cassano’s opener in the first half.
Spain who looked to set the tournament a light with their great performances were grinding out a win against a stern Croatia side who were determined to make the knockout stages just like in 2008 where they were defeated on penalties by Turkey.
Spain were all but through and the late Jesus Navas goal sealed qualification to the quarter finals as Croatia bowed out as they couldn’t do enough. Spain would set up a quarter final clash with the second placed nation from Group D, which could have been the co-hosts Ukraine or the two favourites to qualify in France and Roy Hodgson’s England.
Perhaps England’s toughest encounter of the group stages would be the final deciding game against Ukraine in Kiev, it was played almost like an away match and with 4,000 England fans in the 64,000 all-seater in the Olympic Stadium keeping one ear on the scoreline in the Sweden-France encounter which would go a long way to deciding England’s quarter final fate.
England’s talisman, Wayne Rooney was back from his two match ban and although he wasn’t influential in his performance, he was the difference between a draw and a win. Steven Gerrard again provided a cross in from the right, albeit a poor one, a few ricochets allowed it to squirm through to Rooney who stood a couple of yards out.
The United striker flung his new head of hair at the ball to convert the only goal of the game just moments after the half-time break. Ukraine were unpredictable as they got past Sweden but were easily beaten by France and with some hope in the sails of the England fans, they were making themselves known.
However, England suffered a huge scare when John Terry managed to hack a ball off the line, just like he has done so many times for club and country. Upon viewing the replay, the clashes against Germany in 2010 and 1966 all came flooding back and just in 1966, England got the better of the decision.
John Terry did hack the ball away but it seemingly crossed the line and even with the goal line official, he couldn’t reach a conclusion and the match continued. This finally irked Sepp Blatter out of the woodwork, the FIFA president calling technology now a necessity especially after Frank Lampard’s cruelly ruled out goal against Germany in a World Cup second round clash in South Africa two years ago.
England managed to hold out for the win and Hodgson has since stated that England are exceeding any expectations laid down for them prior to the tournament’s start two weeks ago. With two wins over Sweden and Ukraine, England showed the determination and battle to keep the results alive, that was shown in their opening draw against France.
The omens from the 1966 World Cup where England went all the way seem similar as England kicked off with a draw before recording wins in the Group against Mexico and France. England would beat Argentina and Portugal to meet the old enemy but with France’s result against Sweden hanging in the balance, they would have to wait for their passage.
Seb Larsson’s stoppage time goal to secure a 2-0 win over France soon clinched top spot for England. Larsson’s vicious volley succeeded Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s second of the tournament with his spectacular scissor kick to flummox Hugo Lloris in the French goal.
This meant that England’s passage to the final off Italy then either Greece or Germany was confirmed, and more importantly, avoiding Spain in the quarter finals.