Tuesday, June 12
By Nick Ames in Donetsk
You couldn’t wipe the smile off Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s face.
Chatting with the national press in the Donbass Arena's ‘mixed zone’ - the area in which players conduct post-match interviews - before stopping for a few minutes with Arsenal.com, you had the impression that the beaming 18-year-old could have talked for hours.
Nobody could blame him. While his competitive England debut wasn’t all plain sailing, he’d worked as hard as anyone to ensure Roy Hodgson’s side began their campaign with a valuable point - and he showed some real glimpses of his unique talent too.
One first-half dart past Alou Diarra was among the game’s most memorable pieces of skill, and the way in which he dispossessed a ponderous Adil Rami just three minutes in demonstrated that, as Arsenal fans have seen over the past nine months, he’s unfazed by any occasion.
His work off the ball, something that can develop relatively late in young players, was effective too. In the opening period, his movement created space for Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck on several occasions, and - as he acknowledged after the match - he was also charged with ensuring that the marauding raids of French right-back Mathieu Debuchy were kept in check.
During the first half, Alex was stationed just metres in front of Arsène Wenger. The boss is co-commentating for French TV channel TF1, and couldn’t have been better positioned to keep an eye on the youngster he signed less than a year ago.
He saw rather less of Theo Walcott, who didn’t touch the ball after his late introduction on the same flank. If Theo’s lack of action was something of a surprise, Laurent Koscielny’s had already been explained by Laurent Blanc.
It’s hard to see the France manager disassembling his trusted Mexes-Rami partnership during this tournament, although the latter’s performance didn’t impress this onlooker. You feel that the Arsenal defender would add mobility and composure to the French back line.
Perhaps perversely, working at a major tournament means you probably watch fewer games in their entirety than if you stayed at home. The remarkable events that sparked Ukraine v Sweden into life were only seen sporadically by most in the huge tent erected for the Donbass Arena media, the structure abuzz with the busy tapping of keyboards.
But there was no mistaking the strength of feeling provoked by Andriy Shevchenko’s fairytale brace - fireworks exploded high into the sky above Donetsk upon the final whistle and a cacophony of car horns set in immediately.
What more natural place to make a beeline for, then, than Shevchenko Boulevard? One of the primary veins of Donetsk’s transport system, it courses through the city centre towards the outlying suburbs.
If the sentimental value was there, the potential for a night out sadly wasn’t – we were refused entry to a bar named after John Hughes, the Welsh industrialist who founded Donetsk, on account of its imminent closure. They did send us away with a large plastic bottle of the city’s native brew – but if there was a party to be had, it wasn’t here.
In a few hours’ time I return to Kharkiv, a city that grew on me tremendously, ahead of tomorrow’s match between Germany and the Netherlands. Could Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski’s side strike a decisive, killer blow upon Robin van Persie and the Dutch? I’ll bring you what news I can from the Metalist Stadium.
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