Early Doors

Wonderful Walcott joins Euros party

Early Doors

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What a difference four days makes. A study in seething frustration as he left the Donbass Arena without so much as a word after being given a couple of minutes in a 1-1 draw against France, on Friday in Kiev Theo Walcott was a picture of contentment as he floated out to the team coach with a beaming smile across his face, joking to the assembled media of his strop in Donetsk: "Sorry if I blanked everyone."

That his demeanour was altogether sunnier in Ukraine's capital city came as little surprise given the winger had just produced his finest England performance, and scored his first goal, since a hat-trick against Croatia in 2008. Too often Walcott has been on the fringes of England games; here he completely transformed only his second match at a major tournament.

Walcott's introduction as a substitute after 64 minutes changed a potentially disastrous defeat into an altogether more encouraging 3-2 win over Sweden, and a first competitive victory over the Scandinavian nation means England must now secure only a draw in the final group game against co-hosts Ukraine to reach the quarter-finals.

Though Andy Carroll opened the scoring with a header straight out of the Duncan Ferguson manual, and Danny Welbeck claimed the winner with a gorgeous little backheeled volley, it was the introduction of Walcott — his rasping shot from range that Andreas Isaksson somehow lost mid-flight, his penetrative run and assist for Welbeck — that altered the momentum of the tie irreparably.

He even had a little joke ready about his goal.

"I think I surprised myself to be honest," he said. "At first I thought it took a deflection, that's why my celebration was a little bit odd. But it didn't. I watched it back, and I didn't know I had that sort of Ronaldo dip in me, so I'll have to do it a bit more often."

After his match-winning contribution — that has far exceeded anything Ronaldo himself has contributed to this tournament - ED, in the style of Private Eye, owes Theo Walcott an apology.

Over recent months we may have given the impression that you were more an athlete than a footballer, a man with pace to burn yet lacking in anything remotely resembling a final product. A player whose continual presence in the England side was a matter of some bafflement. What we of course meant to say was that you are probably Garrincha reincarnated and England's inspiration. A player to make Europe's best quake with fear.

Of course, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, and ED still remains unconvinced by his ultimate value to the team, though after his match-winning display it feels as if it might be lying closer towards the 'genius' rather than 'idiot' end of the spectrum at present. But this was not just Walcott's night, it was England and Hodgson's too after a frankly mad second half in Kiev.

This was meant to be a boring encounter between two unadventurous sides who put safety first: England due to the new emphasis on caution instigated by Hodgson and Sweden due to their failure to implement a new expansive style in an opening defeat to Ukraine. Two times two banks of four. What actually transpired was arguably the game of the tournament — not in the quality on display of course, but in terms of the helter-skelter, wildly fluctuating nature of the match.

England led 1-0, then Sweden 2-1, then England 3-2. Over 90 minutes it was up and down more often than Nicklas Bendtner's shorts.

Walcott took the man-of-the-match honours after his fantastic impact as a substitute but Hodgson must also be given huge credit for identifying an admittedly obvious weakness in the Swedish team and starting Andy Carroll to target England's Group D in the air. Because annoyingly, when he launched himself above the Swedish defence and thumped home a quite brilliant header, ED had to pulp the Andy Carroll Joke Book it had lovingly been crafting ever since his £35 million move to Liverpool in January 2011. This was his best performance in over 18 months.

The opening goal — a diagonal cross from Gerrard and a powerful header from his Liverpool team-mate — was as quintessentially English as tea and crumpets, queuing or excessively fawning over unelected old people who live in massive houses. And there was some comfort in that. As Hodgson takes England back to their roots and 4-4-2, the players appear to be responding in kind, despite the little time they have had to work with the new manager.

They buy into his philosophy, which has now taken England to the brink of reaching the quarter-finals — the benchmark, and often an insurmountable barrier, for any England boss. Ukraine must still be negotiated on June 19 but they remain exactly on course for a typically heartbreaking quarter-final defeat to Spain in extra-time.

And suddenly, following a blunt performance against France, England have options coming out of their ears. Wayne Rooney returns for the Ukraine game, yet Carroll and Welbeck have both made compelling cases for inclusion, while Walcott is also pushing hard for a place in the starting line-up.

But as Hodgson acknowledged, it will prove rather tricky to leave out a player of Rooney's calibre.

"Wayne Rooney is a very special player and it would be very difficult for me to leave him out of the team," Hodgson said, adding that he hoped that having a player of Rooney's class in the team would make a big difference.

"If you are a member of the team and someone like Wayne Rooney is sitting out suspension you probably expect him to get back in the team."

Walcott probably expects to be back in the starting line-up as well following his heroics in Kiev. James Milner has looked too ponderous in his two starts and while ED can certainly see the argument that Walcott merely proved his value as an impact substitute, and has never been convinced by the Arsenal man, he has surely demanded the right to earn a full 90 minutes in Donetsk.

Having spent the entirety of the 2006 World Cup sat on the bench, suffered with the rest when qualification for Euro 2008 went awry and having watched events in South Africa in 2010 unfold from home after being dropped by Fabio Capello, finally Walcott has a positive experience to speak of in a major tournament. You could tell: it was all over his face.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: "The operation was good, but the patient is dead." — Sweden coach Erik Hamren sums up his side's Euro 2012 experience in rather quirky fashion following their elimination at the hands of England.

FOREIGN VIEW: "It is just a pair of lucky boxer shorts that I used in the first game as well and have used before the tournament. I didn't know that I was breaking any rules but I am aware of that now." — Nicklas Bendtner is forced onto the defensive after UEFA charges him with improper conduct for revealing a pair of branded pants after scoring against Denmark.

COMING UP: Group A reaches a climax as Czech Republic take on Poland and Greece play Russia. Both games kick off at 7.45pm tonight. Group leaders Russia only need a draw to qualify but even Greece, bottom with one point, can still make it through, meaning we may well have a dramatic evening on our hands.

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