The returning Wayne Rooney was the hero as England edged a victory against co-hosts Ukraine to finish top of Group D and set up a quarter-final clash against Italy.
England’s talisman scored his first goal at a major tournament in eight years after Steven Gerrard’s cross was twice diverted before being fumbled by goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov into the path of Rooney who nodded in from point-blank range.
Ukraine dominated England for long periods and were unfortunate not to salvage at least a draw, particularly in the second half when Marko Devic’s shot had crossed the line, but the goal wasn’t awarded and England held on to qualify as group winners.
England will now face Italy in Kiev on Sunday after France were defeated by Sweden 2-0, however Les Bleus still qualified as runners-up and will play world and European champions Spain on Saturday in Donetsk.
Rooney was unsurprisingly recalled to the starting line-up alongside Manchester United team-mate Danny Welbeck, who was preferred to Andy Carroll. James Milner kept his place ahead of England’s matchwinner against Sweden, Theo Walcott, with manager Roy Hodgson conscious of the Three Lions maintaining a solid defensive shape against a dangerous Ukraine side.
Ukrainian icon Andriy Shevchenko began on the bench after he failed to make the starting line-up due to a knee injury, but Ukraine were in no way blunted as they made an excellent start, roared on by a partisan crowd in Donetsk.
England struggled to maintain possession in the early stages, and in the 12th minute a shot from Devic on the edge of the box was brilliantly blocked by Scott Parker, then shortly after John Terry got his body in the way of a Yevhen Konoplyanka strike as Ukraine looked to break the deadlock, knowing a win was required to qualify for the last eight.
The co-hosts maintained their early pressure, but there was nothing penetrative yet. Ukraine have the worst shooting accuracy of any team at the Euros with a meek 17%, and showed why as Oleg Gusev fired another left-foot shot which evaded Joe Hart’s dive and went over from 20 yards.
Against the run of play, Rooney should have opened the scoring in the 28th minute after a fantastic cross field ball from Terry found Ashley Young, who whipped in a brilliant delivery straight to Rooney, but the striker guided a weak header wide from six yards.
Two minutes later, Andriy Yarmolenko checked inside Ashley Cole and curled a tame left-foot shot which Hart gathered well.
The impressive Yarmolenko then twisted Parker inside and out before Joleon Lescott dived across and cleared for another Ukrainian corner.
Ukraine’s dominance was such that England did not have a shot on target for the whole 45 minutes, the first time that has happened since 1980.
England fans needn’t have worried though, as in the 48th minute, superb trickery from captain Gerrard freed the Liverpool midfielder who swung a cross that ricocheted off two defenders before Pyatov fumbled the ball, which fell fortuitously to Rooney who nodded in for his 29th international goal.
England could have added a second shortly after when a quick break involving Man of the Match Gerrard and Rooney ended tamely as Milner dragged his shot wide.
In the 61st minute, a short corner caught England out and Artem Milevskiy, in an offside position, somehow headed over from six yards.
Controversy struck a minute later as Milevskiy and Devic combined before Devic waltzed into the area and drew a fine save from Hart which partially dealt with the danger, before Terry sprinted back and hooked an outstanding clearance away to safety.
With a goal-line controversy that damaged England’s 2010 World Cup campaign still fresh in the memory, some English followers may feel justice has been done.
However, with an extra official a mere five yards away from the action, one must wonder whether UEFA president Michel Platini will reconsider his stance on goal-line technology. Replays also showed Milevskiy was again offside in the build-up to Devic’s effort.
It was a mixed performance by goalkeeper Pyatov, who demonstrated why he is Ukraine’s third choice stopper as he flapped at a Milner cross which found its way to Cole, who struck a crisp left-foot shot on goal which Pyatov then acrobatically saved for a corner.
Ukraine could have snatched a draw in the 73rd minute when the tricky Konoplyanka ferociously smacked a swerving shot that Hart could only palm back into the box, but Lescott excellently cleared as England secured a hard-fought win to book a quarter-final date with Italy.