KIEV, Ukraine — England’s talented youngsters not only provided enough flashes of flair to see off Sweden, they also gave coach Roy Hodgson belief in a bright future.
Theo Walcott epitomized a generation of players who appeared to come of age in Friday’s 3-2 win over Swedes at the European Championship.
The Arsenal winger — a non-playing member of the 2006 World Cup squad who was dropped before the 2010 event — has finally made his mark at a major tournament at the age of 23.
The second-half substitute equalized to make the score 2-2, and then set up 21-year-old Danny Welbeck’s winner to nullify the Swedish fightback after 23-year-old Andy Carroll had headed England in front.
The brilliance of the younger players masked some of the long-standing deficiencies of the team, with sloppy defending, possession lost cheaply and periods when Sweden overwhelmed its higher-ranked opponent.
But in the aftermath of the match, Hodgson dwelt on the positives, relieved that England is still on track to reach the quarterfinals after the Euro 2012 opener against France was drawn 1-1.
“All teams need to know that, even if they’ve had an excellent generation of players, there’s something coming along which is going to replace that generation in time, and also put players who are in the team, who have been in the team for a long time, under pressure,” Hodgson said.
“The Swedish team will need to find that fairly soon,” he said. “Having looked at their lineup tonight there are so many players who have been playing now for maybe as long as 10 years and up to (and) over 100 caps. There comes a time when you need some players knocking on the door (of the team).”
Walcott hadn’t scored for England since a hat trick almost four years ago in World Cup qualifier against Croatia.
But in Kyiv, the Arsenal winger made his impact within three minutes of emerging from the bench to replace the ineffective James Milner just after the hour.
Goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson was left flailing as Walcott’s rising shot from outside the penalty area went past him.
“You’ve got to be ready to come off the bench … I surprised myself to be honest (with my goal),” Walcott said. “I thought it took a deflection. That’s why my celebration was a little bit odd. It was a great time. It was a crucial moment in the game because they’d just scored.
“I think that (the goal) shocked them, and we just showed what class we’ve got.”
That class was evident again in the 78th minute when Walcott burst through the Swedish defensive and clipped the ball to Welbeck, who flicked the ball into the net with his heel on the turn.
“It was a good move. We got the ball in behind their left back with a good pass, and Theo was able to skip away from him,” Hodgson said. “He showed a lot of composure to find Danny at the near post, and he timed his run very well.
“But it was a very clever finish with the pirouette past the goalkeeper who thought he was going to toe it towards the near post. The finish actually went to the far post. It was a great goal to win the game.”
The game started well for England with Carroll justifying Hodgson’s decision to hand the burly Liverpool striker a first competitive start to bully defenders with his height in the penalty area.
Picked out from near the halfway line, Carroll rose to head in England’s opener from Liverpool teammate Steven Gerrard.
“We’ve got a great team spirit going on,” Carroll said. “We had to stick together. We showed that tonight and got the win.”
The performances of Carroll and Welbeck in particular though have presented Hodgson with a quandary: which striker to drop to accommodate the return of Wayne Rooney from suspension in the Group D finale against Ukraine on Tuesday.
“I welcome those kind of selection problems,” Hodgson said. “I was really pleased with the performance of the front players … but Wayne Rooney is a special player and, frankly, it will be hard to leave him out. So I’m afraid you expect him to get back into the team when the suspension is served.”