KIEV, Ukraine – When will he be anointed Sir Roy?
In truth, England manager Roy Hodgson still has a way to go to match Alex Ferguson and others so prominent in the British – and world – game. But with England on the brink of advancing to the quarterfinals at the European Championships after a thrilling 3-2 win against Sweden in Kiev, Hodgson can do no wrong. For now. As the peoples’ choice of Harry Redknapp seeks new employers, Hodgson is getting more popular by the day.
Given Hodgson’s late appointment as England manager, coupled with injuries to Darren Bent, Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry and Gary Cahill, as well as a Wayne Rooney suspension, it’s no mean feat. Those are quite the obstacles to overcome.
“I don’t want to make too many comments about me,” Hodgson said in a news conference. “I just try to do my job.”
He’s doing it pretty well at the moment.
Managers will play things down when changes they make to the team work, knowing full well such moves can also go terribly wrong. But Hodgson had the golden touch against Sweden on Friday.
With England promising to play bold and creative in a bid partly to shun naysayers such as French manager Laurent Blanc and left back Patrice Evra, Hodgson started Andy Carroll and Danny Welbeck up top. Welbeck was the lone striker against France in the 1-1 draw.
Both Carroll and Welbeck scored.
Theo Walcott, the third of the three young guns, was an impact substitute, too. Casting aside the disappointment of being overlooked in favor of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain against France, Walcott sizzled in scoring a goal and assisting in another.
Let’s be clear: England didn’t suffocate, stifle and pass Sweden to death a la Spain. Carroll’s headed first goal in the 23rd minute came courtesy of another wonderful cross by Steven Gerrard, and Walcott’s tying goal in the 64th was a tad fortunate. He won’t, as Swedish manager Erik Hamren declared, score those types of swerving goals from distance very often.
Welbeck’s game winner – a back-heel effort from Walcott’s cross that would have made the free-flowing Dutch proud – isn’t exactly high-percentage football, either. But it was creative.
“It was a goal well worth winning a game,” Hodgson said.
Sweden entered the game amid reports of disharmony, but Welbeck credited Hodgson when he spoke of England’s togetherness. “Our team spirit showed,” he said.
Hodgson has an easier decision to make as it relates to Rooney. Available for Tuesday’s game against Ukraine, when England needs a solitary point to progress to the quarters, Rooney would start, Hodgson made clear. He wouldn’t reveal his formation, but Welbeck and Rooney have worked well in combination at Manchester United.
“I welcome those types of selection problems,” Hodgson said. “Theo’s contribution was enormous. That man is going to be very happy tonight. But Rooney is a special player, so it would be very difficult to leave him out.”
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is Sweden’s special player, yet he was unable to end his scoring drought against England. He wasn’t poor by any means, mind you.
Hamren had key decisions to make of his own, too, especially in defense, but it didn’t go as planned for him or the 20,000 Swedish fans adorned in yellow who created a crackling atmosphere at the Olympic Stadium. England had about 3,000 supporters.
Sweden, which joined Ireland in being eliminated in the group stage, showed its vulnerability in the air again, and the back four has leaked five goals in two games. Perhaps Hamren would have preferred Sweden to keep a clean sheet instead of central defender Olof Mellberg scoring one goal and playing a huge part in the other.
Sweden’s first goal in the 49th minute, in which Mellberg took advantage of a fortuitous pass from Ibrahimovic and ultimately benefited from Glen Johnson scoring into his own net, caught England off guard. Mellberg’s headed effort 10 minutes later came during a spell where England was rocking.
Walcott’s goal changed the mood.
“I thought it was our game when we had a bit of luck with the first goal,” Hamren, who labeled his team “cowards” after Monday’s 2-1 loss to Ukraine, said. “But no, in those games, we didn’t have the extra strength you need. I’m really feeling bad for the players because they played a good match. We have an expression in Sweden: ‘The operation was really good, but the patient died.’ That’s how I feel today.”
The English patients, with Hodgson’s guidance, are alive and well.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.