Ukraine 1-1 England – The Verdict
You can’t beat the real thing and these days you would be hard-pressed to beat Kyle Walker. Yet an emotional night in Wroclaw, just 100 miles from the Ukraine border, showed the England’s veteran right-back could be the difference between success and another agonising failure next summer at Euro 2024.
The 33-year-old seem humbled when Jordan Pickford’s post-match comments were put to him. “He’s the best right-back in the world for me and he has got to be the quickest player in the world, hasn’t he? There is no doubt,” the England goalkeeper said.
“His pace against Mykhaylo Mudryk, who is absolutely rapid, games against Kylian Mbbape, his defensive stuff as well. And now, he is 33, he has got that experienced head and he has been at City winning those titles.
“He’s won everything. He’s done his career, he helps us as players. But the experience side of him is really good to work with.” When Pickford’s words were relayed to him, Walker was all but lost for words. ”Well, I’m going to give him a Coke when I get on the bus then!” he said graciously.
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Penalty-taking execution aside, Walker’s individual display against France in the World Cup quarter-final in Qatar means that England are the only team heading to Germany this summer who do not have to travel in complete trepidation of Mbappe and Les Bleus. And on Saturday, he showed he can even be the match-saver at the other end, albeit with his first international goal in 77 appearances, becoming the longest-serving England player ever to open his account.
The goal was a sign of England’s new maturity. Oleksandr Zinchenko’s euphoric opener had whipped the crowd up into even more of a frenzy as for the first time in this qualifying campaign, Gareth Southgate’s side found itself in a bit of a pinch. Yet here was Harry Kane, the centre-forward and record goalscorer, quarter-backing himself in the centre-circle next to Harry Maguire and Marc Guehi, behind the rest of the England team.
His pass, though, was exquisite. And it was full-back Walker, bursting in from the right, who collected it imperiously and kept his head to poke it past the Ukraine goalkeeper with the coolness of finish you’d expect from Kane himself. However, that was not the only reason England had to be thankful to Walker.
Pressing for a winner in the second was always going offer Ukrainie hope of a counter-attack and on a handful of occasions they did indeed surge forward to a huge expectant roar. But here comes Walker, zooming past everybody, to mop up in such quiet and effective fashion. It wasn’t just his pace, it was his anticipation.
“I think he has got better with age,” Southgate said, “And that doesn’t always happen. Mudryk has not hit the heights yet in the Premier League but he’s a bloody dangerous player. His ability to control those counter-attacks was critical.
“But also the way Kyle’s trained all week, his influence on younger players in the group. He’s got huge experience of winning big matches and all week, I pulled him two or three days into the training because his focus was really clear, the way he was organising on the pitch.
“He’s enjoying the extra responsibility he’s had at his club and I know he’s ready to embrace that with us as well. His all-round game, great composure in a position where you don’t always find it and our senior players were important and he was the pick against Ukraine.”
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