Wayne Rooney signalled England's growing belief at Euro 2012 by targeting a place in the semi-finals after marking his return from suspension with the goal that set up a match with Italy in the last eight.
The narrow and controversial victory against Ukraine, which ejected the co‑hosts from the competition, has set up a confrontation with the Azzurri in Kiev on Sunday after England successfully avoided a meeting with the reigning world and European champions Spain. The national side have stumbled at the quarter-finals in three of their past four tournaments, yet there is conviction growing within the squad that they can break through that barrier this time around.
"I really hope we can get past the quarter-final this time," said Rooney, who was injured in 2004 and sent off in 2006 as the English were eliminated by Portugal in the quarter-finals. "Italy is a difficult game and it will be quite evenly matched in the way we play, so it could go either way, but we're looking forward to it. We're feeling confident and difficult to beat at the moment, and we've got players in the team who can score goals. It's going to be a tight game but hopefully we can come out winners. We know our qualities and what we're capable of. I don't think any team will fancy playing us."
This decisive win came potentially at a cost with Ashley Young limping away from the ground – his fitness will be assessed back in Krakow – and a dose of good fortune after a Marko Devic effort went unrewarded despite John Terry having hacked it clear from behind the goal-line.
Neither the additional assistant referee nor the linesman on the near side signalled a goal, leaving the Ukraine coach, Oleh Blokhin, apoplectic .
"To be successful in these tournaments, because of the standard of teams involved, you need that bit of luck going with you," said the captain, Steven Gerrard. "Two years ago we didn't get that luck when Frank Lampard's 'goal' was ignored, a big turning point in that game against Germany [in the knock-out phase of the World Cup], and we ended up packing our bags and going home. Today the luck turned. But it just shows that, if you keep working hard and keep fighting, you earn that luck. We deserved it today.
"In previous tournaments we've underperformed and not delivered for our country, but in this one so far, so good. We're working very hard for each other and we showed signs that we are a good team and that we could go on and do well here. We won't be under-estimating Italy but, at the moment, everything's going our way. We needed more from each other at half-time, and we tried to rally each other. But when it's not going your way, you have to roll your sleeves up and keep going. That's what we did."
Blokhin was baffled that "five referees were on the pitch and the ball was 50cm behind the goal-line, yet they did not see it" and suggested he had spotted the England substitute Andy Carroll use an elbow that also went ignored. He ended up departing the tournament with something of a snarl after challenging a local journalist to "a man conversation, one on one, outside" after the reporter criticised his selections and substitutions. The Uefa media official stepped in though the 59-year-old reissued his challenge as he left the platform. "You should respect that I played football," he added. "Did you play football? Respect my job and me. I won't allow anyone to criticise my team. You want to go with me? If you're a man, go with me. One on one. Let's go."
England will go to Kiev hopeful that Rooney continues to regain match sharpness after his goalscoring return. His winner was his first reward in a major finals since the group game against Croatia back at Euro 2004. "My overall game could've been a bit better but it's difficult in my first game for a while," said the striker. "The one thing I was delighted with was that I was always putting myself in goalscoring opportunities. I could've done better with a couple more but I got the goal and it's three points. To finish top of the group is a great feeling. Hopefully we can kick on from here."
"He's got character, hasn't he?" added Roy Hodgson, the England manager. "He showed his qualities in abundance tonight. He and Danny Welbeck worked extremely hard. It was his first game after having to sit these two others out, and it is a while since he played a competitive match, so he's got to be happy with the way things went for him. Every day helps him and helps us. The fact he's had 80 minutes in this game will give him confidence going into the next game."