THE progress of England to the knockout stage hinges on the fitness of Ukraine's legendary goalscorer Andriy Shevchenko.
That was the prediction from former Celtic defender Alan Stubbs today as he looked ahead to his country's final Group D showdown in Donetsk.
Roy Hodgson's team has performed well in the finals so far – a 1-1 draw with highly-fancied France and a thrilling 3-2 win over Sweden has exceeded the expectations of many of their supporters.
A point against the host nation in the Donbass Arena tonight would book them a quarter-final spot many of their critics felt was beyond them before the tournament got underway.
However, overcoming Ukraine, who will be roared on by tens of thousands of fans in the futuristic 50,000-capacity stadium, will not be straightforward.
Particularly if former AC Milan and Chelsea hitman Shevchenko, who is trying to shrug off a knee injury, is fit to play.
The 35-year-old netted a double in an opening win over Sweden, and Stubbs fears he will pose a serious threat to England's hopes if he is in Oleg Blokhin's starting line-up.
"As a striker gets older, he may lose speed and stamina, but the one thing that never deserts him is his ability to finish," he said of a player who has netted 48 times in 110 appearances for his national team.
"I thought Shevchenko was magnificent in the opening game against Sweden. His goalscoring record speaks for itself, whatever level he plays at.
"His goals-to-chances ratio may not be what it once was, but a player like Shevchenko will always score goals. With a quality predator like him in the team, England have got a tough game ahead of them.
"They'll be playing in a very hostile environment with the vast majority of supporters in the stadium hoping they lose. They will have to defend better than they have done if Shevchenko plays."
England's preparations for the tournament were overshadowed by controversy over Hodgson's selection of John Terry – and the non- selection of Rio Ferdinand.
Stubbs feels the England rearguard as a whole have performed well together in the finals against France and Sweden.
He believes, though, that there can be no repeat of their second-half horror show against Sweden, when Olof Mellberg was allowed to score twice, when they play Ukraine.
The Celtic and Everton legend recalled: "I think that, by and large, the England centre-backs and the defence in general has played well this tour- nament.
"But they will be disappointed they conceded two goals last Friday night. There is a lot of height in the England defence and they should not be conceding goals from crosses into the box. They must do better this evening."
However, Stubbs feels England will be buoyed enormously by the return of his former Goodison Park team-mate Wayne Rooney for this evening's match.
The Manchester United striker has missed the first two games after being hit with a ban by Uefa for kicking Miodrag Dzudovic in a qualifier with Montenegro in October.
The 26-year-old has played just over 30 minutes – he came on as a substitute in the 1-0 friendly win over Belgium on June 2 – since the Barclays Premier League finished on May 13.
But Stubbs, who played with Rooney for two seasons at Everton, knows the 74-times capped star well and expects him to make a huge difference to his team's performance.
He said: "I think the players who have come into the side in Wayne's absence, Danny Welbeck and Andy Carroll, have done well. Welbeck especially has done brilliantly in the two games England have played.
"But I think the fact Wayne is coming back into the team will give everyone a huge lift. To do well in these tournaments, you need to have your best players.
"England only need to draw this game to go through to the last eight so you could say there is no pressure on Wayne to perform in this match. But Wayne being Wayne, he will put pressure on himself.
"That is the type of player he is. He wants to do the very best that he can, to score goals, every time he takes to the field. I wouldn't bet against him doing exactly that."
Rooney declared defiantly that England are capable of winning Euro 2012 in the build-up to the Ukraine game this evening.
Stubbs does not concur with his compatriot but feels that, given the length of time Hodgson has been in charge, reaching the last eight would be an achievement.
He said: "Before the tournament got underway, England were expected to struggle. Very few people gave them a chance of getting through.
"Realistically, England aren't going to win the tournament. I think Germany and Spain have both performed at a higher level than them. But getting to the quarter-finals is something to be proud of.
"Roy seems to have got the team on his side, to have the team playing for him since taking over from Fabio Capello. That is the hardest thing for an England manager.
"There are usually cliques and divides in the England squad. I don't think I have ever seen the squad in such a happy mood."
However, whether the Three Lions players are still smiling after the Ukraine game tonight, will depend on Shevchenko.