England, knockout failures, face ignominy if they fail to negotiate way past Iceland at Euro 2016
Round of 16: England v Iceland, beIN Sports Max 1-4, 11pm
Saturday marked the anniversary. It was 10 years to the day since England won a knockout game at a major tournament. David Beckham’s free kick secured a 1-0 victory over Ecuador. It felt underwhelming at the time. It has come to assume historic proportions in the intervening period.
By way of comparison, since 2006 and including penalty shoot-outs, Germany have won 12 knockout games and Spain 10. It illustrates the extent to which England are a second-tier team, sometimes featuring superstar players but never getting remotely close to glory.
Perhaps England have been the sick man of Europe, an often overhyped, underachieving team. Perhaps it is a small sample size – since the Ecuador win, their only knockout games have been against Portugal, Germany and Italy, all top teams – but that is revealing in itself. England did not play a knockout game in Euro 2008 or the 2014 World Cup: they did not even qualify eight years ago and went out after two games in Brazil.
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Now a decade’s wait may be ended. Indeed, it would rank as one of England’s most embarrassing results if it did not. Having failed to win Group B, they were fortunate to draw Iceland in the last 16 – they almost got Portugal – which is a tie that offers echoes of the 2006 game against Ecuador, another side unaccustomed to reaching such levels.
Iceland – population 330,000, ranked 112th in the world as recently as 2010 and featuring a starter, Johann Berg Gudmundsson, who was relegated from England’s Championship this season – have confounded expectations twice, by booking a place in Euro 2016 and then progressing to the last 16. They represent an uplifting story for everyone else and an opportunity for England.
The difficulty is that, after failing to break down a committed, ultra-organised Slovakia team, they have a side with a similar approach. The sense was that they would face more ambitious opposition in the knockout stages. Then they drew Iceland, unfairly accused of having a “small mentality” by Cristiano Ronaldo when they frustrated Portugal in their opening game. Iceland deploy the 4-4-2 formation England long used. Roy Hodgson, whose side have had 64 attempts and scored just three goals so far, faces a challenge to break them down.
It is a test of his strategic thinking, which was criticised when he rested Wayne Rooney and Dele Alli and made six changes for the 0-0 draw against Slovakia. Each is expected to be restored to the side on Monday.
So is Harry Kane, who has struggled to reproduce his Tottenham Hotspur form in Euro 2016. Should Iceland defend deep, as Slovakia did, then Jamie Vardy’s pace will be negated. Hence the need for another type of striker, although it may make more sense to deploy Daniel Sturridge at the focal point of the attack.
Knockout games are a form of sudden death. This is almost certain to end the lengthy managerial career of one who has excelled in Sweden; Hodgson, who won seven league titles with Malmo and Halmstads, or Lars Lagerback, who was influenced by the Englishman and went on to excel as his national team manager.
“I’ve played England six times and I have never lost,” noted the Lagerback, 67, now in joint charge of Iceland. He is retiring. Hodgson will not have a choice in the matter if Iceland inflict a defeat which would rank alongside the 1950 loss at the World Cup to the United States in English football’s hall of infamy.
“I’m prepared to carry on,” Hodgson said. England are expected to carry on as far as the quarter-finals. An exit there might feel par for the course. The reality is that, apart from a penalty shoot-out win over Spain in 1996, England have not beaten elite opponents in the knockout stages of a World Cup or a European Championship since the 1966 World Cup final.
Their immediate task, however, is to see off over-performing underdogs. A failure to do so would bring ignominy.
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Updated: June 26, 2016 04:00 AM