Euro 2012: Why England must top their group
If England avoid defeat against Ukraine they qualify from the group stages which, as the Dutch and the Russians could point out, is the first objective in a tournament. However, winning the group would be a significant bonus. That would mean a quarter-final against Italy. Daunting, but not compared to the fate of the runners-up who will play world and European champions Spain.
England have learned from experience that topping the group matters. They have qualified for the knock-out stages of a major tournament seven times in the last 25 years. On the three occasions they won the group they won their next match as well, twice going on to reach the semi-finals. In the four instances England were runners-up they went out at the next stage on three occasions. The exception is 2002 and even then coming second meant an early meeting with Brazil, and subsequent defeat.
For England to come first tonight they must overhaul France. A draw will do only if France lose to Sweden. A win will do if France fail to win, or if England's margin of victory is one goal greater than France's, without the latter scoring at least two goals more than England. England could lose and qualify, but only if France also lose to Sweden, and do so by at least one goal more than England's margin of defeat, without surpassing England's total goals scored in the group stages.
In the unlikely event England and France are level in goal difference and goals scored, England will finish above France by virtue of a superior Uefa ranking.
WINNING THE GROUP
1990 (WC) Reached semi-final
While runners-up Ireland were sent towards a quarter-final defeat against hosts Italy, winning the group meant England faced Belgium and, in the quarters, Cameroon, en route to the epic semi-final with West Germany.
1996 (EC) Reached semi-final
Group winners England beat Spain in the quarter-finals as the Netherlands, who were runners-up, went out to a French team that included the bulk of 1998 World Cup winners.
2006 (WC) Reached quarter-final
Won the group to avoid Germany, Argentina, Italy route, instead beating Ecuador before falling on penalties, again, to Portugal.
1998 (WC) Out in second round
England were forced to face, and lose to, Argentina, while group winners Romania played Croatia.
2002 (WC) Out in quarter-final
Winning the group would have lined up Senegal, then Turkey. As runners-up to Sweden, England were sent towards a quarter-final defeat to Brazil.
2004 (EC) Out in quarter-final
Had they won the group, England would have fancied their quarter-final chances against Greece, instead they went out to hosts Portugal.
2010 (WC) Out in second round
England came second to the US, handing them a theoretical path to the final that read: Germany, Argentina, Spain. They fell at the first hurdle. Winning the group would have meant facing Ghana, then Uruguay.