There’s no such thing as an unbeatable team and Spain will discover that before long. But it’s a bonus for England to have avoided the Spaniards in the last eight of Euro 2012.
You don’t win major tournaments without beating the best somewhere along the line but no manager would choose to face Spain any sooner than necessary. They’re the most accomplished team in the world on their day and you’re on a hiding to nothing if you catch them at the wrong time.
So winning Group D was significant for England. It gives them a better chance of reaching the semi-finals – going further than most of us thought they would. I still don’t see them bringing the trophy home but an appearance in the last four would be a big achievement.
In the group stages the players did just about enough. I wouldn’t be any more complimentary than that, even though they took seven points from three games. Their shape has been decent and they’ve got goals in them but they didn’t really dominate any of the matches.
If anything, Ukraine were the more convincing side on Tuesday night and a better one would have taken advantage of a performance like that.
When you get to the quarter-finals you come up against teams with a track record of winning the big international prizes or going very close. I’m thinking of Germany, Spain and Italy, England’s opponents on Sunday.
It’s good to steer clear of Spain but that’s not to say that the Italians are easier opposition. This is usually when they click into gear.
much is going to depend on how Roy Hodgson approaches the game. Is he going to stick to his cautious, protective style or is he going to gamble by using some of his more dangerous players from the start?
I’m thinking mainly of Theo Walcott. If I was Hodgson I’d be massively tempted to throw him in against Italy. Watching England against Ukraine, you couldn’t fail to notice the lack of pace and penetration out wide, something Walcott can give you.
I know James Milner well and he’s a quality player and a great lad. The protection he gives Glen Johnson is immense and you never have to worry about his discipline.
But I don’t think Milner on the right wing is a proper attacking outlet, I don’t see it as his best position. He can do a job there, but there are players in Hodgson’s squad who offer far more going forward.
If England field the same team on Sunday I’d be concerned that Italy will see Hodgson’s team selection as a sign of negativity or caution. The last thing he wants is the Italians feeling free and able to control the ball and run the game.
England didn’t have enough possession against Ukraine and they’ll suffer if they let Italy pull the strings. They need to make them uncomfortable from the start.
That’s where a lad like Walcott comes into his own. I know from my days as a full-back and a centre-back that defenders hate playing against forwards with raw pace. You try not to worry about it but the reaction is almost sub-conscious.
You drop a few yards deeper than you would normally and you give less thought to getting forward yourself. At the back of your mind you’re always thinking about what’s going on in the space behind you.
If Italy face that sort of threat, England will inevitably have more space to play in. What they do with that space is another matter altogether but it presents an opportunity.
Italy would see Walcott’s selection as an indication that England fancy their chances and are ready to go for it.
Hodgson has to look for the win rather than hope for it.
I haven’t changed my original view that winning the competition is probably beyond England. It’ll almost certainly be Germany for Hodgson’s boys if they beat Italy and then Spain in the final, unless something unexpected happens.
But this is football and you never say never. My gut feeling is that the best time to play Spain is in the final.
It’s the last hurdle and a point where there’s nothing to be lost by throwing the kitchen sink at them.
But in order to get there, Hodgson will need to start throwing some of his caution to the wind, starting on Sunday. The call should go out to Walcott.