England take on co-hosts Ukraine, at the Donbass Arena in Donetsk tonight, knowing that a point is enough to take them through to the quarter-final of Euro 2012.
Oleg Blokin’s side, on the other hand, need to win to make it past the group stages, so tensions will be high in what’s sure to be an intoxicating atmosphere.
Three Lions head coach Roy Hodgson will definitely pick talismanic striker Wayne Rooney and he is facing the classic dilemma of who to drop to make way for him.
Rooney will return to the team on Tuesday after completing his two-match suspension following his red card against Montenegro in Podgorica eight months ago.
Either his Manchester United team mate Danny Welbeck or Liverpool striker Andy Carroll will lose his place in the starting line-up.
Carroll scored with a header and Welbeck cleverly flicked home the winner when England beat Sweden 3-2 on Friday which put them in sight of the last eight.
“They have given me the classic manager’s headache but it’s the headache we all want really, because they are players in-form and competing for a place,” said the former West Brom and Liverpool boss.
Meanwhile, skipper Steven Gerrard said: “Everyone knows what Wayne Rooney is all about. He certainly makes us a lot more threatening going forward and he is a world-class player.”
The last time Rooney took part in a European Championships, he scored four goals in four games, back in 2004, so his first appearance at this summer’s tournament will be much anticipated.
Hodgson has a clean bill of health in his squad with Theo Walcott available after a hamstring scare.
The Arsenal winger, if selected, is likely to replace James Milner, but Milner could potentially switch to the left flank with the so far unimpressive Ashley Young dropping to the bench.
And the 64-year-old is content that expectation levels are rising in England after the opening two games which have garnered four points, but he can give no guarantee of success.
Ukraine’s main concern is the fitness of team captain Andriy Shevchenko who is rated as a “50-50 chance” of recovering from a knee injury in time for the decisive Group D clash.
Shevchenko completed a squad training session on Monday, having sat out training the previous day because of a swollen left knee.
But he remains an injury doubt and Blokhin says he will only decide whether or not to play the striker shortly before the match. If he is unavailable, Oleg Blokhin is likely to turn to Artem Milevskiy or Marko Devic to partner Andriy Voronin.
Blokhin has fielded the same defence and midfield in both games so far, with Anatoliy Tymoshchuk shielding the back four and Serhiy Nazarenko, Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko supporting the strikers.
The loss of the former AC Milan and Chelsea striker would be a huge loss for Ukraine because not only is he the country’s all-time top scorer but he is a key figure in the dressing room. The 35-year-old has also scored four of Ukraine’s seven goals at major international tournaments.
Here’s how I expect each team to line up:
England has survived without arguably their best player in Wayne Rooney, I have no doubt his return will help the team thrive for the remainder of their Euro 2012 campaign.
Fortunately for England, the rest of the squad has put themselves in great position going into the final contest of the group stage.
After a 1-1 draw against group favourites France, the English needed to come from behind against Sweden. Substitute Theo Walcott energized the team with an equalizing goal in the 64th minute and then set-up Danny Welbeck to score in the 78th.
England have already proven they have the ability to score, but Rooney is one of the most skilled forwards in the world. With him, they get a focal point of the offense that will make things happen when his teammates get him the ball.
Following yesterday evenings Group C fixtures, England’s potential quarter finals opponents have been made clear. Providing Hodgson’s men qualify for the quarters, they will either face Italy or Spain. The Italians would arguably be the easier opponents, England will need to win the group to set up a fixture against Balotelli and co. A second place finish would mean a tough test next Sunday against current World Champions Spain. I know which fixture I would prefer.
If France win their final fixture against Sweden, the Three Lions will need a large number of goals against Ukraine to secure pole position in Group D based on goal difference.
They’ve managed to hit the net up to now, but more chances (brought by Rooney) will only help the team as they try to advance.
Unfortunately, Ukraine will not be an easy victory. A win in front of the home crowd would be an upset, but it would also put them in the knockout stage in place of England.
The key for England is to control possession and the pace of the game. Rooney will make the offense more aggressive, but they need to wait for their shot and not allow an easy counter.
If the team plays smart, they have the talent to not only reach the knockout stage, but to do some damage once they get there.