• Sense of conviction evident in England training session
• Growing support shown by fans ahead of Italy game
For England the healing process is almost complete. Roy Hodgson's squad transfer back to Ukraine on Saturday intent upon prolonging their stay at Euro 2012 at Italy's expense but, whatever transpires in Kiev, this campaign will have had a restorative effect. "There's definitely a spirit there, certainly inside the camp, and we can feel pride growing outside," said Scott Parker. "People say spirit doesn't win you tournaments but, ultimately, that's our base. And we have it back." A sense of faith in the national team has been rekindled.
It is reflected in the television viewing figures back home, and the growing support making its presence felt over here. Around 10,000 English fans are expected in the Ukrainian capital on Sunday, all the pre-tournament scepticism ebbing away to be replaced by tickled enthusiasm at the blend of resilience and resurgence being served up by Hodgson's team. It has taken two years, a period scarred by ructions over the captaincy and a messy divorce with the previous manager, to reach this point, but memories of that dispiriting stint in South Africa, culminating in abject humiliation in Bloemfontein, are fading at last.
England have as yet achieved no more here than they did on the high veld – now, like then, they have merely emerged from the group into the knockout phase – but the upbeat mood reflects progress. There was laughing and joking amid the businesslike training drills at the Hutnik stadium on Friday. Conviction has grown with every performance, the victories over Sweden and Ukraine achieved by a team tapping into its own strengths and still striving to improve. This side are unlikely to scintillate in this tournament, either against Italy or in any potential contests that follow, but their sense of realism still feels refreshing. They know their capabilities and are convinced they will carry them further.
No one better personifies the selfless nature promoted by the collective than Parker. A player who used to revel in all-action box-to-box routines now scuttles as a midfield anchor, leaving younger legs to do the more incisive running around him. England will be braced for Italy to dominate possession at the Olympic stadium, as they were against the French in Donetsk, and will bite when they can on the counterattack with the notion they should offer up something far more flamboyant and fluid feeling fanciful. Better use of the ball will be required in the latter stages of these finals, but the basic approach will remain the same.
"When I watch the best in the world, I want to be like them," said Parker. "We all have a fascination, all of us, with Spain. Since I've been around, they're possibly the best team I've ever seen. But how many other teams play like Spain out there? How many teams have you seen in this day and age who can play like Spain? There aren't many. Barcelona ... No, you are what you are, aren't you, and you have to make the best out of that. I'd be lying if I said we couldn't do a bit better going forward, but we're still winning games. In competitions like this, that's the most crucial thing. "We saw how Chelsea did it in the Champions League and, at times, it was backs against the wall for them. But they got through it. No, at the moment, we're doing a good job and if, at the end of 90 minutes, we're still winning games then I'm not too fussed [how we're doing it]. You can't underestimate the sort of quality we have and how much belief you can have from togetherness in a team and a siege mentality, really. We've got that in abundance. Certainly there'll be times in games where we need to control it a bit better. But, hopefully, the longer we go in the tournament, confidence will come and we'll do that."
It is flowing at present in a way that has taken even some of the squad by surprise. Only six weeks ago, England were manager-less and apparently meandering in their preprataions for Poland. "Back then, it was hard to imagine we'd do well at a tournament, but the players are still the same," said Glen Johnson. "Roy didn't have long to set his plans out, but he's done well to get lots of points across as quickly as possible. Many of the lads have been playing for England for a long time, so it hasn't taken them long to adapt. We've always been close to each other and had belief in each other's ability. The first objective was to get out of the group. Now, in the knockout, anything can happen."
In more normal circumstances, this would feel the natural stage for England to bow out. No major footballing force has ever been eliminated by England away from Wembley at a major tournament, and the Azzurri, while more functional than at their romantic best, will be streetwise and awkward opponents, a team with the knack of winning ugly if required. Yet, in Kiev, Italy will be wary. A sense of momentum is building behind the English, whose younger players are eager to make their name and whose older heads recognise this as a final fling. "I'm not getting any younger so this may be my 'one time' at a tournament," added Parker. "I'll try my best to get to the next World Cup, but I'll be 33 then and, realistically ... I think maybe this is really it. So I'm pinching myself to be sitting here with a quarter-final to come. We're getting good feedback from home, saying what support there is building back there for us, and the longer the competition goes on, the longer we're here, the belief grows.
"Being positive goes a long way. Of course, we need to be realists as well, but, in the heat of it, we have that belief and we are positive. We've got that. I don't have any intention of packing my bags on Monday and going home. Everyone in this squad would say exactly the same."
The wounds from South Africa have closed up. Reputations are being restored.