After the Lord Mayor’s Show, nine 30-something players started the last-16 clash between Sweden and Ukraine. As the second half of extra-time came to a close, only three remained on the pitch, with six having succumbed to injury, fatigue, a red card that was simultaneously both inevitable and unlucky, and perhaps even a little boredom. This was a long, exhausting game in the middle of a long, exhausting tournament at the end of a long, exhausting season.
All of this was glorious viewing for England players and fans as hopes that the heroes from Wembley would avoid either team were replaced by the hope that this game would actually just go on forever, leaving only a handful of players still standing, with nobody from either side keeping anything in the tank for a Saturday night in Rome. If there were early questions about whether England would struggle against the effervescent Emil Forsberg or the frankly confusing Andriy Yarmolenko then they all disappeared with the realisation that both these sides were utterly f***ed.
The game had initially been entertaining and the woodwork rattled three times in what felt like quick succession at 1-1 but a reluctance to take any risks or expend any energy even with 20 minutes left on the clock left the two teams in tacit but baffling agreement that they should embrace the concept of extra-time. Then the substitutions began and all rhythm and ambition was lost, with Martin Samuelson’s red card for an unavoidable but sickening follow-through stymying the game even further. There were breaks upon breaks as players fell to the floor for treatment or just a little sit-down.
By this juncture, a late winner usually feels like a kick to the stomach of the neutral who has already daydreamed about penalties, but the cross from Oleksandr Zinchenko and header from Artem Dovbyk were delicious, and by this point it was clear that England have nothing to fear but fear itself in Rome. This is not a great Ukraine side and they are now not a great Ukraine side with an extra 30 minutes in their legs.
The last time England faced Ukraine it was September 2013 and Rickie Lambert started that World Cup qualifier flanked by Theo Walcott and James Milner. England have come an awful long way since then – from 14th to fourth if you want to measure in rankings – while Ukraine have pretty much retained their given place on the periphery of international football. A draw away from home was considered a decent result for Roy Hodgson’s England but a draw in Rome would not be acceptable now. Defeat would be failure.
Usually we would shy away from such bombast but this Ukraine side will hold no fear for this iteration of England, who should embrace the role of favourites after watching Andriy Shevchenko’s side shatter themselves in pursuit of a victory that ranks among the most impressive in their history. This will be their second major quarter-final with the other coming in the 2006 World Cup. On that occasion they were roundly beaten 3-0 by Italy and it should come as no surprise if England reprise that scoreline.