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EURO 2012: IT’S NO WALK IN THE PARK FOR ENGLAND

Published: June 19, 2012 | 9:14 am
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IN A WAY, it was the football equivalent of an evening stroll around the grounds.

For England’s players, with their vast houses and bottomless bank accounts, this may be a regular experience back at home.
When they reacquainted themselves with the Donbass Arena last night, however, it was to take part in an exercise in the kind of visualisation which these days is so heavily promoted as the psychological key to victory in modern sport.
Prevented from training on the pitch after last Friday’s deluge of rain here, Roy Hodgson and his squad went for a walk around it instead.
The scene in mind was the one 24 hours ahead, this evening. The giant stadium will be filled with 50,000-odd Ukrainians. They will be burning with patriotic fervour and noisily desperate for their team to remain in Euro 2012 with the intense, almost Messianic yearning of a host nation with its dream on the line.

Andriy Shevchenko, the sporting spiritual leader of a nation of 48 million with a point to prove about its emergence as one of the east’s new powers, may not play. His fitness will be judged today.
With him or without, the approach to this match has an epochal feel for the locals. It is, said the striker Marko Devic who might replace Shevchenko, the “most historic” game Ukraine’s national side has ever played, even if he is a naturalised citizen who was born in Belgrade in Serbia and changed horses, so to speak, after he came here as a club player.
Oleg Blokhin, the marauding old striker who was European Footballer of the Year in 1975 when he led the line for Dynamo Kiev and is now the Ukraine coach, added that he had “never seen so many people behind the team”.

His twitchy, edgy behaviour at the pre-match press conference last night – he got fed up with being asked continually about Shevchenko and started shouting at journalists – suggests there may be an anxiety within the squad underlying the fervour the crowd will whip up.
He tried to argue that all the pressure is on England, but you sensed he felt the weight of a nation too.
The England players know what to expect, anyway. It was suggested the walk-about took place to check out the playing surface as much as to sense the impending racket. In their new mood of togetherness and resolve under Hodgson, they insist they can handle this stuff.
“Supporters don’t score goals,” said England’s captain, Steven Gerrard. “The noise doesn’t score goals. We are not worried about the atmosphere. I can’t wait because it will be 50,000 fans, all cheering. That is what you play football for. We are playing well and we are playing positively. We are enjoying how we are playing.
“Everyone knows that in South Africa at the World Cup two years ago, the team were not playing at a good level. But we can’t wait for this. We have got Wayne Rooney back and everything is positive.”
The mighty Donbass, glowing electric blue at night, is an impressive sight; but for the national team it is no citadel. They have played in the stadium six times but never won. When they lost against France in the rain-interrupted match last Friday, it was their fourth defeat here.
In qualifying tournaments, England have proved adept at taming intimidating situations in eastern Europe, although some of the biggest tests have been beyond them.
In Moscow in 2007 they lost a tie which was instrumental in their failure to qualify for Euro 2008. The year before they were defeated in Croatia, although that was handsomely avenged under Fabio Capello.
Three years ago they lost a World Cup match in Ukraine 1-0 but they had already qualified and it was a dead rubber.
Nobody expects this to be a walk in the park. But a form of redemption is within their grasp.
They should seize it, no matter how hostile it is here tonight.‘Playing well and with Rooney back, Roy’s team can grasp a form of redemption’

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