If there was unexpected reason for optimism before, it feels far more justified now. England had entered this contest fretting over whether they would emerge from Group D into the knockout stages at all, yet they ended it having beaten a host nation for the first time since 1954, topped the section, avoided the reigning world and European champions, Spain, in the last eight and with belief growing that their challenge may not be as unlikely as first envisaged after all. Italy await in Kiev on Sunday, not Spain here in Donetsk the day before, and although the Azzurri represent awkward opponents, England are starting to feel like a team worth avoiding themselves. There was resilience to admire here, even if they sat back too much prior to the interval and relied on a slice of luck after it to preserve their lead, but the teamwork is improving with every match. Theirs appears a tight unit and senior players are making their presence felt in all the right ways. Roy Hodgson will continue to preach realism, quite rightly, but he has won four of his five games in charge. This is all unfamiliarly positive.
After the furore in South Africa, when Frank Lampard's shot against Germany had cannoned down over the line only for the linesman to wave play on, good fortune fell with England at the Donbass Arena. With Hodgson's side leading, and one of the co-hosts' forwards not spotted to be offside in the buildup, Marko Devic had wriggled through, with his shot looping up from Joe Hart's attempt to block and arcing into the goalmouth, only for John Terry to recover and hack the ball away.
Yet the clearance, as replays showed, was made from about a foot behind the goalline. The official behind the goal did nothing, the linesman ignored the appeals of the Ukrainian players and support, and the referee, Viktor Kassai, duly waved play on. It is an all too familiar story. Football's law-maker, the International Football Association Board, has approved two companies to take part in a second phase of goalline technology testing and a final decision on the introduction of a system of cameras will come next month. But it will be too late for Devic and Ukraine.
This was the kind of raucous occasion on which Terry has so often thrived, a desire to mute the din from the stands summoning the best from the Chelsea defender. England had struggled to gain any foothold while Ukraine poured at them through the first period but Terry heaved his defence into line, inspiring Joleon Lescott at his side. There was a fine covering challenge to thwart Andriy Yarmolenko early on to set the tone and blocks with limbs and his chest to preserve parity as the co-hosts flew forward. His desperation to leap and hack Devic's attempt from the line – beyond the line, as it transpired – was a reminder that he retains athleticism even if his body can creak at times. He will have taken as much pride in the fizzed crossfield pass to Ashley Young on the flank in the buildup to Rooney's first-half chance. England need their seniors to excel to progress, and those at the heart of this side's rearguard are becoming stalwarts upon which to rely.
Gerrard had come into this tournament as his manager's first choice as captain and that added responsibility is drawing the best from the 32-year-old even when his brief is more deep-lying than the one he enjoys at Liverpool. His supply line has reaped England rewards in each of the games: it was his free-kick that Lescott thumped in against France and his wonderful cross from deep that Andy Carroll thundered beyond Andreas Isaksson last Friday. Here, after a torrid irst half, he tricked Yevhen Konoplyanka as Ukraine lulled immediately after the interval and fizzed in a low centre that, once deflected, squirmed through Andriy Pyatov. Rooney duly converted at the far post and England breathed again. Admittedly, Gerrard would have cursed an inability to exert more first‑half control but he looks fit, focused and confident and, eventually, his authority shines through. He is a man seeking to make amends for events in South Africa two years ago, a tournament that briefly prompted him to consider his future at this level. Hodgson had namechecked him as one of England's key players in the buildup; his form justifies all the hype.
In the end, the greatest Ukrainian footballer bowed out with nothing more than a 20-minute cameo and a booking. How Andriy Shevchenko and his coach, Oleg Blokhin, must regret the kicks sustained by the 35-year-old forward to his left knee in the opening two group games, the swelling on the joint restricting him initially to the bench here. By the time he entered to gain his 111th cap, Ukraine trailed and were playing catch-up in the game and the group. He remained their likeliest source of a goal, diving in at the near post in search of a flick at a corner which might have yielded his 49th international goal – no compatriot in this squad has more than eight goals – but he deserved to depart on a more upbeat note than this. The former Milan and Chelsea striker had indicated prior to the finals that this would represent his last involvement in international football and he departed with a booking for a poor challenge on Young and retaining his record of having scored four of his country's seven goals in major tournaments.