England did their best to throw a bucket of icy water over a remarkable show of emotion and unity inside Wroclaw’s Tarczynski Arena – but a lifeless, dreary and conservative display never stood a chance of overshadowing a truly special occasion.
Gareth Southgate’s side remain locked on course to reach Euro 2024 in Germany with four wins and this 1-1 draw from their first five qualifiers. A point away from home in an awkward environment is not to be dismissed lightly.
What also cannot be dismissed is the lack of creativity, urgency and energy that required them to come from behind after Oleksandr Zinchenko’s opening goal for Ukraine had a thunderous roar and outpouring of joy sweeping around this bowl of a stadium.
Harry Kane’s flash of brilliance conjured up Kyle Walker’s equaliser just before half-time, the 33-year-old Manchester City defender scoring his first England goal on his 77th appearance.
After that it was a slog to break down the resolute Ukraine defence, Bukayo Saka coming closest when his rising shot was touched on to the bar by keeper Georgiy Bushchan after the break.
The spoils were shared while Ukraine’s players and fans revelled in this unique atmosphere, with dull England – too many passes and not enough chances – doing nothing to spoil the mood.
Southgate persisted with Jordan Henderson in midfield despite the 33-year-old leaving the Premier League and Liverpool for the riches of the Saudi Pro League with Al-Ettifaq.
And even though the manager’s starting line-up contained creative midfielders in the shape of Jude Bellingham and James Maddison there was little of that commodity on offer.
Henderson certainly produced nothing to suggest his continued presence in England’s starting line-up will not remain a bone of contention.
Manchester United’s Harry Maguire did very little wrong in defence, but the longer he goes without consistent game time at Old Trafford, the more those growing questions about his place in the national team and the validity of Southgate’s continued loyalty will be asked.
England dominated possession but did so little with it that by the time the final whistle sounded they had no compelling case to claim they deserved victory.
In the overall context, both Ukraine and England will be satisfied with a point as this was a warm night in Wroclaw that rose above matters of sport and qualification for Germany next summer.
Ukrainian supporters packed into the stadium 950 kilometres from their capital in Kyiv, arriving in their thousands hours before kick-off to give this qualifier a truly ‘home’ feel even if it was taking place on foreign soil.
They were whipped into a noisy frenzy in the hour before kick-off by the enthusiastic cheerleading of the pitch announcer, with banners inside the stadium bearing slogans of support reading “Wars Aren’t Stopped. Wars Are Won” and “Army Of Heroes”.
Ukraine’s players took to the field draped in their national flag and many supporters were close to tears during the rendition of the country’s anthem.
When the action started, the volume was deafening every time Ukraine even got into England’s half but reached another level when Zinchenko put them ahead after 26 minutes.
England responded with that Walker equaliser, Kane confirming his status as the complete player by dropping back to near the halfway line before showing outstanding vision and range of passing to pick out the marauding full-back behind Ukraine’s defence. Walker showed a clear head in an unfamiliar situation to finish tidily.
As Ukraine dug deep for their point, the noise levels rose again, the entire stadium illuminated by phone torches. When the point was secured it was followed by a demonstration of communion between players and fans that provided a truly special moment.
Ukraine’s yellow and blue flags were waved throughout. This was a truly spectacular piece of theatre that stretched beyond sport.
In contrast, England provided only one special moment and certainly not enough to banish the old accusations that manager and players are gripped by conservatism on far too many occasions than is good for them.
Henderson was given the full game, Bellingham surprisingly taken off despite England searching in vain for the sort of ‘X factor’ moment he can provide.
They were restricted to half-chances. There was no sense of panic in Ukraine’s defence – because England were unable to maintain anything that could be described as sustained pressure.
England were sterile and disappointing, seemingly playing with the handbrake on, although Southgate will have every right to state that while this is a bump in the road they are still firmly fixed on a route to take them to Germany next summer.
This England team, and these England players – including some of the most highly regarded young talent in the game – will surely know they are capable of much better than this.
Next stop Glasgow and resurgent Scotland on Tuesday. Forget the word ‘friendly’. It will not exist at Hampden Park and Steve Clarke’s home side might just fancy their chances.
For Ukraine, meanwhile, this was a night in Wroclaw that was about much more than just football. They had every right to their celebrations, car horns sounding outside this temporary home as those in blue and yellow headed off into the night.