England unlikely to suffer too many sleepless nights but hectic days await

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BEFORE last night’s draw, Fabio Capello was telling anyone who would listen that winning the European Championships would be more difficult than attempting to win last year’s World Cup.

Clearly, he was not kidding. The good people of Holland, Germany, Denmark and Portugal will certainly be able to empathise with the Italian’s sentiment after being drawn in what most closely resembles a ‘Group of Death’ in Euro 2012.

Capello’s fellow Italians and the Spanish may also be reflecting this morning on a less than kind draw after being handed the potential banana skin of meetings with the Republic of Ireland and Croatia.

As for England, a place in Group D alongside hosts Ukraine, France and Sweden may not be one to cause too many sleepless nights between now and the opening game on June 11 in Donetsk.

But a potential meeting with Spain or Italy in the last eight most definitely is, serving to illustrate just why Capello believes triumphing in the July 1 final will be such a big ask.

Only time will tell, of course, but there is no denying that the knockout stages will hold plenty of possible demons for England.

Spain are undoubtedly the best team in the world right now and, therefore, will be expected to finish top of Group C.

That would mean a quarter-final meeting with the runners-up in England’s group, ensuring the target for Capello has to be finishing top and not just qualifying.

Mind, even if the Three Lions do top the group then chances are Italy will stand between Capello’s team and a place in the semi-finals.

Before then, of course, the group stage has to be negotiated. First up on June 11 in Donetsk is France, comfortably the strongest of the four nations that made up Pot Four.

The French may not be the force of 10 years ago but, nevertheless, they are still a side to be wary of after the manner in which the memory of a truly horrific World Cup has been banished courtesy of a 17-game unbeaten run that includes a 2-1 win at Wembley.

Strangely for a country ranked in the lowest pot of seeds, Laurent Blanc’s side are probably the strongest England will face in Group D.

Certainly, Ukraine are not a side to strike fear into the hearts of an opponent. Six years ago that might not have been the case but the lack of a clear and coherent plan, as witnessed by the reappointment of Oleg Blokhin just seven months ago, makes the joint-hosts an outside bet at best to reach the quarter-finals.

The same can be said about Sweden, who qualified for the finals as the best runners-up with 24 points from 10 games in a group won by Holland.

The Swedes also beat last year’s World Cup finalists during the last round of matches in October but, even so, they are a limited side, as was shown when a below-par England saw them off at Wembley last month.

So, all in all, England can surely be satisfied with the outcome of yesterday’s draw for the group stages in Kiev.

In fact, perhaps the only downsides to being drawn in Group D are that it was not Group A, quite comfortably the weakest, and the fact England’s travel itinerary is now far from ideal.

Several months ago, the Football Association opted to base themselves in the centre of Krakow. The hope, therefore, was that England would be placed in either Group A or B due to all those games being staged in Poland.

Instead, Capello and his side are now facing a 1,000-mile round trip to Kiev for the Sweden game and almost double that when taking on Ukraine and France in Donetsk.

The FA have already made it clear they have no plans to change their base even though England cannot play in Poland until the semi-finals at the earliest so that means plenty of travelling for the squad, something that is hardly ideal when the games come round as rapidly as they do in a major tournament.

That aside, however, it is difficult to feel anything but relieved at yesterday’s draw.

One argument that was surely settled last night was whether to take Wayne Rooney.

Following the three-match ban handed to the Manchester United striker in the wake of his red card against Montenegro, there were suggestions in some quarters he should be left at home.

The reasoning, according to Rooney’s critics, was that Capello could not to afford to waste a spot in his squad on someone who cannot feature in any of the group games for fear it could cost England a place in the knockout stages.

Surely now, however, after being handed what should be a relatively smooth passage to the last eight, there is no reason not to take the striker – especially as the prospect of unleashing a fully-fit Rooney come the quarter-finals is a mouth-watering one, assuming his appeal against the severity of the ban fails.

Another plus to the draw is that England will know plenty about their three opponents.

Unfamiliarity was never going to be a problem due to Capello having already faced nine of the other 15 nations competing during his four-year reign as manager.

Having faced Sweden just last month, there is unlikely to be many surprises come June 15. Ditto the meeting with the French four days earlier, while Ukraine were in the qualifying group for the 2010 World Cup that England topped with an impressive 27 points from a possible 30.

The only blemish on that record was a 1-0 reverse in Dnipropetrovsk that handed Capello his first defeat in a competitive game as England manager. Let us hope Ukraine do not hand the Italian his last on June 19.