Steven Gerrard finally flourishing as England captain
Euro 2012: Krakow
One of the enduring images of England's Euro 2012 campaign has been the sight of Steven Gerrard pumping the air with his fists, teeth clenched in a mask of triumph, with celebrating supporters for a backdrop.
It was the moment of victory against Ukraine in Donetsk's Donbass Arena that confirmed England's place in the last eight and ensured respectability and credibility from this tournament for manager Roy Hodgson and his squad.
Gerrard then pulled his white shirt over his head and looked to the heavens as he made his way off to the latest plaudits that have accompanied his performances in England's three Group D games.
Liverpool's 32-year-old captain has banished doubts held by some - including former England coach Fabio Capello - about his suitability to lead his country and will be vital once again when they face Italy in the quarter-final in Kiev on Sunday.
It is all a far cry from the day in February when England's interim manager Stuart Pearce turned to Tottenham's Scott Parker with the armband for the Wembley friendly against the Netherlands - a move that privately hurt Gerrard despite his dignified acceptance of the decision.
Gerrard has become the personality and player England's squad look to here at Euro 2012 and they will do so again as they attempt to extend a satisfying tournament even further against Italy.
He is a character of contrasts, a trait that mistakenly led Capello to believe he was too timid to be England captain, going to John Terry and Rio Ferdinand before effectively only turning to Gerrard when he was last man standing.
If Capello expected to be greeted by an in-the-face "I'm Your Man" reaction from Gerrard when the subject of captaining his country was broached then he was always going to be disappointed. It also meant that he was only ever going to lead England out in extreme circumstances under the Italian.
Despite enduring an injury-hit season with Liverpool, Gerrard looks to be 100% fit for the tournament. Photo: Reuters
This happened most notably in the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 when Capello gave the captaincy to Gerrard after Rio Ferdinand sustained a knee injury on the first day of training in Rustenburg.
Gerrard was one of the better performers, scoring against the United States, but the fact that he wore the armband meant he was tainted in the eyes of some after a hopelessly flawed England campaign.
Now he is making up for lost time. He is not taking temporary care of the captaincy for anyone else and has accepted the responsibility in a way Capello felt - harshly - was beyond him.
The driving midfield force seen in Ukraine is the public face of England's captain. Away from the action he is serious and occasionally introspective - which may have also been his unwitting downfall when Capello conducted what amounted to a "beauty parade" to find his leader.
Glen Johnson, a team-mate for Liverpool and England, offered an insight into Gerrard when he said: "He's not loud and you wouldn't know he is there half the time. He lets his football do that talking."
It was a message repeated by Parker, the man he replaced as captain but who now partners him in the centre of England's midfield when he said: "He's quiet and quite subdued at times but his football has done the talking for him."
And Gerrard's football has spoken eloquently on his behalf as he has created goals for Joleon Lescott against France, set up striker Andy Carroll with a wonderful cross against Sweden then created the crucial winner for Wayne Rooney in Donetsk.
Gerrard may still have to convince some - often praise given to him here has met with nothing short of abuse - but there are no doubts in the minds of those who matter, namely his manager and team-mates.
There has also been a discipline to Gerrard's displays that some of his critics claimed was a flaw. Confidence in himself and those around him means he has felt no need to take on every task - and the result has been that less has proved to be more in Euro 2012.
Gerrard has been a creative force for England, laying on three goals so far in the tournament. Photo: Getty
After 95 caps and 19 goals in an England career stretching back to his debut against Ukraine in May 2000, a day after his 20th birthday, he is playing better than ever at international level.
The relationship between Hodgson and his captain has also been a feature of Euro 2012. They had an unfulfilling time together during Hodgson's 191-day reign at Liverpool - but it was immediately clear here that the pair were happy to work together.
Hodgson said: "Steven has been fantastic ever since I was given the job. My first thought was to contact him and since then he hasn't put a foot wrong as a captain, a person or a player.
"He's playing as a captain should, as one of the best players in the tournament."
The manager's confidence has been repaid by Gerrard and can even be illustrated by small incidents off the field.
Gerrard was clearly insulted by a French journalist's suggestion before the opening game that England were no longer a major footballing nation, bristling as he said: "I think once we click and get a bit of luck we will prove an awful lot of people wrong, not just in this country but around the world - and people like that fella sitting at the back."
And when informed ahead of England's meeting with Sweden that his former Liverpool assistant manager Phil Thompson had expressed concerns about the game, Gerrard smiled broadly and asked with a confidence clad in concrete: "What's he worried about?"
Hodgson and Gerrard have an interesting personal dynamic, with the manager occasionally deferring to captain in media briefings, seeking out the Merseysider's opinion. This is not the disciplinarian straitjacket Capello imposed but an inclusive, more relaxed regime.
England hope he can lift them again on Sunday and help secure a place in the last four of Euro 2012.