Saturday, June 16

By Nick Ames in Kiev

What a difference four days can make.

Walking through the media ‘mixed zone’ after England’s draw with France on Monday, Theo Walcott hadn’t been in much mood to chat – understandably so, because two minutes’ action without seeing the ball isn’t much of a basis for conversation.

Last night, though, there was rather more to talk about. Stopping to speak to this reporter and an inevitable scrum of others, he even started out with an apology – “I’m sorry if I blanked anyone on Monday” – before happily recalling the events of an evening in which he turned England’s Euro 2012 campaign on its head.

As impact substitute appearances go, Theo’s was scintillating. Within seconds of Olof Mellberg putting Sweden 2-1 up in the 59th minute, he could be seen prepared for action on the sidelines – Roy Hodgson, to his credit, had wasted absolutely no time in taking action as his side stared down the barrel of what had seemed an unlikely defeat at half time.

Theo’s first touch of the game brought a cleared corner under his spell just outside the box; the second sent a searing effort past an unsighted and wrong-footed Andreas Isaksson. Sixteen minutes later, a trademark burst down the line and incisive cutback allowed Danny Welbeck to improvise delightfully and leave England needing just a point from Tuesday’s match with Ukraine to qualify for the quarter-finals.

It had felt like a game in which Theo could make a difference – Sweden’s left side of Martin Olsson and Rasmus Elm had appeared porous from the off, most of England’s best first-half incursions coming down that flank as they set about their opponents with vigour.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain made a late entrance to the fray. It had seemed that he’d be replacing his Arsenal team-mate, who took a knock to his calf, but after a thumbs-up from Theo he was forced to wait a few minutes more, remaining on his feet in the technical area and receiving instructions from Hodgson and Gary Neville before eventually replacing Welbeck.

If Steven Gerrard hadn’t made it to a deflected Walcott pass ahead of the poised Oxlade-Chamberlain, we might be talking about an England goal made at Arsenal this morning.

The 18,000 Swedes – which actually seemed a conservative estimate yesterday – in Kiev are left to ponder the futility of their stay for the remainder of the group stage. They play France here on Tuesday, but their hopes of qualifying have gone. It feels like a pity – in a three-hour walk around what is a beautiful city yesterday afternoon, yellow and blue could be glimpsed around every corner, and there’s no doubt that the local population have taken them to heart too.

I look forward to more time in Kiev later in the tournament – and will write more another time about the powerful weight of its football history, evidenced by the wonderful statue of legendary Dynamo Kiev manager Valeriy Lobanovskiy that stands proudly outside their home ground.

This lunchtime I fly to Lviv, completing the quartet of Ukrainian host cities at Euro 2012. Smooth passage permitting, I’ll be at the Danish and German press conferences ahead of their decisive clash tomorrow evening – before settling down to see who of Tomas Rosicky and Wojciech Szczesny makes it to the last eight in what is likely to be a winner-takes-all clash between Poland and Czech Republic.

Every evening, it seems, the stakes are getting higher.


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16 Jun 2012