So here we are, a day before our nerve-racking Quarter-Final against Italy. The bitter pessimism has changed to optimism that maybe this could be our year, maybe this group of players won't let us down as they so often do. But let me ask you, what has changed? I thought about this question long and hard after our final group game against co-hosts Ukraine and have seriously struggled to come up with a reasonable answer. So let me break it down into the three games thus far that have got us into this position.
1) England 1-1 France
This result may have surprised a lot of people; especially those who watched the game. England started brightly, creating a few chances, most notably with James Milner rounding the keeper only to skew wide in front of a gaping goal.
When Lescott headed in after the half hour mark everything seemed to be going well for England, too well in fact. And from this point onwards, we were outclassed by a decent, but not by any means fantastic French side. This is evident when you see that France enjoyed 65% of the possession and 7 shots on target. Fortunately for England; they were wasteful and only managed to convert from Na$ri's shot less than 10 minutes after we took the lead.
We managed just one attempt on goal- Lescott's goal, of course. We got a point, allbeit in an ugly fashion, but a country full of pessimistic England fans was prepared to accept that.
2) England 3-2 Sweden
A captivating encounter- but should it have been this close? Just days before this game there were reports of unrest in the Swedish camp, with their own manager Erik Hamren even brandishing them 'cowards' after their encounter with Ukraine. The way I see it they are very much a one man team (though I don't think Ibrahimovic's ego needs feeding any more) and even he has his off days.
On another day we could easily have lost this; and yes, I know that is an extremely negative way to look at it, but a team that only just manages to beat the unusually poor Swedish side deserve all of this praise? And this is not mentioning the dreadfully bland and uninteresting football that we played (and really, I know people will say it's not about the style of football, it's about the winning, but I think watching your national team play your favourite sport should be an enjoyable experience and this certainly wasn't).
3) England 1-0 Ukraine
This is what summed up our tournament thus far for me. Our inability to pass the ball 5 yards coupled with the sheer domination that Ukraine had over us in the first half shows just how poor this England side is. People say we defended well in this match, and indeed throughout the tournament, but i'm afraid I don't see it. Yes, Terry did well to clear the ball (even if it was behind the goal-line) and yes, we kept a clean sheet, but is this down to our defending or Ukraine's poor finishing? I put it down to the latter.
On reading this you may think that i'm being harsh on a passionate England side- and that I will give them. But ask yourself if this England side even gets close to England sides of the past and other top sides in this tournament. Would a single England player get into the Spain team? Or the Germany team? If so, certainly no more than a couple. Are players such as Jordan Henderson, Martin Kelly and Stewart Downing in the same league as the Spanish subs (Fabregas, Navas, Busquets)? If you don't agree with what i'm saying, compare the starting XI tomorrow with the starting XI in the 2002 World Cup. I think you will be surprised.
There is light at the end of the tunnel though, my friends. We are in the Quarter-Final (though I think anything less than this in the group we were in would have been criminal). We do have a chance of beating Italy (a bigger chance, for example, than Chelsea beating Barcelona). And there are some players performing very well indeed- for me Steven Gerrard is the standout player of the tournament to date, heavily criticised in an England shirt but he can be proud of his tournament whatever happens tomorrow. Oxlade-Chamberlain, Hart, Terry and Cole have also put in their shifts.
So let's get behind the England, there's no shame in losing tomorrow; but let's go out with a bang. And if we win, there is a large helping of humble pie waiting for me...