Football Features

Remember Welbeck’s Ibrahimovic tribute act? The last England side to top a group at the Euros

By Ben Green

Published: 13:20, 27 June 2021

It wasn’t pretty, convincing or indicative of a squad that features Phil Foden, Jack Grealish and Jadon Sancho, but England are through to the knockouts of Euro 2020, and judging by the reaction, you would never have known they topped the group.

In truth, it wasn’t very ‘England’, who pragmatically (we’ll leave whether that’s a compliment or not to your discretion) kept three clean sheets, got the job done and won Group D, despite managing just two goals and becoming the lowest-scoring side ever to finish top of a group at the Euros.

Grealish fanboys are still up in arms, German football aficionados are scratching their heads as to why Sancho has only seen six minutes, and people are still wondering whether Southgate actually knows what a left-back is. But, let’s face it, this is only the third time ever England have topped their group at the Euros.

The first came in 1996. The second? Euro 2012. Roy Hodgson’s men incredibly finished ahead of France and hosts Ukraine, while Danny Welbeck went full Ibrahimovic (more on that later), before inevitably crashing out on penalties, in which ‘Ashley’ became the most unpopular name in some parts of the UK after Young and Cole contrived to miss from 12 yards.

See how Danny Welbeck, Adam Lallana and more described the experience of playing for England by viewing the Betway video above.

Andrea Pirlo’s ‘panenka’ remains the lasting image of that exit, but it still tops Hodgson’s next attempt at Euro 2016, *shudders in thunderclap*. So take a look at where they all are now, the players that achieved what was at the time only England’s second-ever group-topping Euros campaign.

Most used XI

Goalkeeper: Joe Hart

  • Current club: Tottenham Hotspur
  • England caps: 75
  • Euro 2012 appearances: 4

It was a largely forgettable tournament for Hart, who was first caught out by then-Manchester City teammate Samir Nasri in England’s 1-1 opener with France, with the mercurial midfielder finishing at his near post. But the biggest sucker-punch remains Pirlo’s audacious ‘panenka’ in the penalty shootout with Italy. Every position has it’s lowest ebb: for a striker, it’s missing a tap-in, for a defender, it’s an own goal, for a ‘keeper, it’s getting done by a ‘panenka’.

After falling down the pecking order at City and feeling the wrath of Pep Guardiola’s unremitting demands, Hart can now be found at Tottenham, where he has a cushy sinecure on the sidelines and plays second fiddle to Hugo Lloris.

Right-back: Glen Johnson

  • Current club: Retired
  • England caps: 54
  • Euro 2012 appearances: 4

England’s team photo ahead of their Euro 2012 opener against France features only 10 men. The reason? Johnson in fact missed his cue post-national anthem and sprinted into position while the rest of his teammates posed for the pre-game photo. This is probably a fitting image of Johnson’s tournament: unmemorable (other than an own goal against Sweden).

Centre-back: John Terry

  • Current club: Retired (Aston Villa assistant manager)
  • England caps: 78
  • Euro 2012 appearances: 4

This was to be Terry’s last international tournament for England. The former Chelsea captain featured in all four of the nation’s games, keeping clean sheets against Ukraine in the groups, and that goalless stalemate with Italy. But, there was to be no swansong success and he announced his international retirement in September that year. Following that, Terry played on at club level for six more years, before hanging up his boots at Aston Villa and moving into a coaching position.

Centre-back: Joleon Lescott

  • Current club: Retired
  • England caps: 26
  • Euro 2012 appearances: 4

Terry’s centre-back partner for the tournament, Lescott actually opened England’s account for Euro 2012, netting his only international goal in the 1-1 draw with France. A laser-guided free-kick from Steven Gerrard found Lescott’s path, who evaded his marker and thumped past Lloris.

Nowadays you can find Lescott beating the drum for Man City as a pundit, though his stolid demeanour is almost directly at odds with another City pundit, Micah Richards, whose laugh-after-every-sentence approach is genuinely a breath of fresh air and often TV gold.

Left-back Ashley Cole

  • Current club: Retired
  • England caps: 107
  • Euro 2012 appearances: 4

The second of two Ashleys to miss in England’s penalty shootout with Italy. Young first rattled the bar, and Cole tamely struck into Gianluigi Buffon’s path. England out. The iconic No. 3 was entering his twilight years but was still very much part of the international furniture for England, and he performed with merit at the tournament, with his driving runs and uncompromising grit imperative to the nation’s first-placed finish in the groups and a clean sheet after 120 minutes against Italy.

Central midfield: Scott Parker

  • Current club: Retired (Fulham manager)
  • England caps: 18
  • Euro 2012 appearances: 4

Fulham’s enviably handsome manager was an enviably good footballer, as well. In 2012, his terrier-like tenacity was the perfect foil to Steven Gerrard’s tempo-setting as the nation’s double-pivot. Incredibly, Euro 2012 was Parker’s first major international tournament, heading to the quadrennial event at the ripe old age of 31. Parker simply got better with age, shining in particular for West Ham where, in 2011, he won the FWA Footballer of the Year as a non-Big Six player, a real collector’s item as one of only two players in the last 27 years to achieve that alongside Jamie Vardy of Leicester in 2016.

Central midfield: Steven Gerrard

  • Current club: Retired (Rangers manager)
  • England caps: 114
  • Euro 2012 appearances: 4

Captain for the tournament, Gerrard was England’s playmaker in chief, providing three assists as Hodgson’s side struck five times. His first was that aforementioned free-kick to Lescott; his second was another pinpoint cross to Andy Carroll for the deadlock-breaker vs Sweden; and his third was a hopeful delivery against Ukraine to tee up Wayne Rooney. Oh, and he scored the opening penalty against Italy. Vintage Gerrard. He is now Rangers’ ‘Invincible’ manager, carrying his playing form into the dugout.

Right midfield: James Milner

  • Current club: Liverpool
  • England caps: 61
  • Euro 2012 appearances: 4

The ultimate utility man, Liverpool’s moonlighting left-back was deployed on the right wing for England at Euro 2012 and he produced a very Milner-esque showing. Nothing spectacular, no eye-catching numbers to leave stattos weak at the knees. Milner simply did Milner, by which I mean he ran around a lot and energised England’s midfield, never shirking a challenge or failing to show for the ball. A manager’s dream, and that is why Jurgen Klopp loves him so much at Liverpool.

Left midfield: Ashley Young

  • Current club: Aston Villa
  • England caps: 39
  • Euro 2012 appearances: 4

Young finished the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign as England’s joint-top scorer with three goals as the nation went unbeaten, and he carried that form into the competition, proving a real livewire and threat from the left flank. Unfortunately, Young missed his penalty against Italy, absolutely wellying the ball at the Olympic Stadium crossbar. He struck the ball too well, sending tremors across Kiev. A couple centimetres lower and it may have gone down as an iconic penalty moment.

Striker: Danny Welbeck

  • Current club: Brighton
  • England caps: 39
  • Euro 2012 appearances: 4

England’s 3-2 win over Sweden on matchday two remains one of the competition’s most iconic games, and for Danny Welbeck, it was the night he drew straight from Ibrahimovic’s playbook. Not averse to a ‘banger’ (see his overhead kick for Watford vs Norwich, or his Cruyff turn-finish vs Leeds), Welbeck netted the winner for England at the death after the two nations traded leather for 80-odd minutes, and it was a moment of pure instinctive brilliance.

As substitute Theo Walcott whipped the ball in, Welbeck manoeuvred in front of Olof Mellberg and backheeled into the net. It was the kind of audacious, ‘showboaty’ finish synonymous with Ibrahimovic, who would no doubt have appreciated the cheek to attempt such a finish as he stood helpless at the opposite end of the pitch. Ibrahimovic would have his say against England the following year as his stunner won the 2013 Puskas Award, but this was Welbeck’s night.

Striker: Wayne Rooney

  • Current club: Derby (manager)
  • England caps: 120
  • Euro 2012 appearances: 2

In England’s last game of the qualifiers against Montenegro, Rooney was sent off for a late challenge on Miodrag Dzudovic and was inconceivably slapped with a three-game ban from Uefa, which would have ruled him out of the groups for England. The FA later contested the suspension and Dzudovic even produced a written letter to Europe’s governing body, in which he defended Rooney, stating: “In my opinion, Rooney shouldn’t be banned even for a single game”.

The sentence was later reduced to two games and Rooney ended up missing the matches against France and Sweden, before marking his return against Ukraine with the winning goal, and later scoring his penalty against Italy after a hard-fought 120 minutes. The aftermath was not kind to Rooney, with former England manager Fabio Capello leading the critics.

At the time, Capello said: “After seeing the latest game (against Italy) I think Rooney only understands Scottish.

“That’s because he only plays well in Manchester, where Sir Alex Ferguson speaks Scottish.”

Other England players used: Andy Carroll, Theo Walcott, Jordan Henderson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

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