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The last group to kickoff in the 2012 European Championships, Group D, commenced with a monumentally important matchup between oft maligned England and 2000 Champions France at the Donbass Arena in Donetsk; the teams meeting for the first time since a stunning comeback in injury time from the French broke English hearts in 2004.
For England fans, the tournament signalled a proverbial changing of the guard with players of the ilk of Frank Lampard, David Beckham, Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville never likely to see another major tournament in an England shirt. With Captain Steven Gerrard one of the last from the so-called ‘golden age’ of English football, newly installed manager Roy Hodgson hoped to instil some of his experience in the youthful England squad.
New faces brought new enthusiasm to England fans and a 1-1 result in Donetsk will certainly increase expectations for progression from the group and perhaps further in to the tournament. Joleon Lescott’s 29th minute opener was cancelled out by Samir Nasri’s tidy finish from the edge of the box ten minutes later to give both teams a point; a promising start to the tournament for both teams but one which England will presumably cherish more than their Gallic rivals.
In an enterprising and bold move, Hodgson opted for a 4-4-1-1 formation with the an intriguing duo of Ashley Young playing off Manchester United’s Danny Wellbeck in front of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Steven Gerrard, James Milner and Scott Parker in midfield. With Gary Cahill ruled out in the warm up match against Belgium, Manchester City’s Joleon Lescott fills in beside stalwart John Terry at centre back. 18 year old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain earned his first start and was favoured on the wing ahead of his Arsenal teammate Theo Walcott.
French coach Laurent Blanc, aiming to become only the second footballer to win the European Championships as both a player and a manager, (Germany’s Berti Vogts being the other) opted for a more conservative 4-5-1 lineup, with Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema taking the lone front man role ahead of Malouda, Ribery and Nasri and Cabaye. The more defensive minded Diarra made up the midfield for the French. Blanc plumped for for the tried and tested at left back with Manchester United’s Patrice Evra starting ahead of the inform Gael Clichy.
Both sides started the first half reasonably brightly, with England’s youngsters not looking overly nervous in possession. Roy Hodgson’s tactical setup seemingly nullified any French threat going forward in the early stages and it was James Milner who has the first golden opportunity to open the scoring; Ashley Young’s smart through ball releasing the Manchester City winger who proceeded to round Hugo Lloris before shooting in to the side netting from angle with the opening goal beckoning.
The chance galvanised both teams in to further action, although clear cut chances were lacking. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, in a moment of sheer class which seemed to justify his inclusion in one swift movement, sliced apart the French midfield with some dazzling feet but his attempted through ball found Ashley Young in an offside formation.
With the French beginning to dominate the middle third of the field and England gradually sitting deeper, a foul on the French right gave England the perfect opportunity to pile forward and launch the ball in to the box. Captain Gerrard’s free kick fell to an unmarked Joleon Lescott on the edge of the six yard box who duly obliged in nodding home passed the helpless Hugo Lloris in the French goal to give England the lead.
Rather than seeing the goal spur his charges on to pressing for a second, the opener signalled a retreat which allowed France to dictate the play on a greater basis. A rash Oxlade-Chamberlain challenge down England’s right flank earned the young man a yellow card and allowed Samir Nasri to ping in a dangerous ball, met by Alou Diarra. The Marseille man very nearly atoned for his mistake in allowing Lescott to head home by powering a thunderbolt of a header towards goal, only to be brilliantly denied by Joe Hart.
France weren’t made to pay for their profligacy however, Samir Nasri being offered far too much time on the edge of the box in the 39th minute, his low rifling shot angling past Hart at the near post through a host of defenders to equalise. The French were increasingly given far too much time on the ball in England’s final third and Roy Hodgson would have been delighted to hear the half time whistle before his team fell behind.
The second half started in a similar fashion to the first, with both teams happy to pass the ball around in a confident manner. However, the 32 degree heat looked to be increasingly taking its toll upon both team’s structure as the match became increasingly open and fractured. Samir Nasri and Mathieu Debuchy in particular down the right flank consistently caused Ashley Cole significant trouble for the French.
The second period failed to live up to expectations with less goal scoring opportunities than the first; the final 45 minutes being characterised by some fairly suspect refereeing and France domination in the final third. England’s resistance was epitomised by the efforts of the engine in the English midfield from an inspired Gerrard and an increasingly lagging Parker. While France enjoyed the rub of the green in both deflections and decisions, several crucial blocks from beyond the penalty box were all that France could manage to threaten Joe Hart’s goal in the final 30 minutes, despite Ribery, Benzema and Nasri all looking dangerous in possession.
With the goalmouth of neither team coming under consistent pressure, Roy Hodsgon opted to inject more attacking prowess in to his lineup, Jermain Defoe and Jordan Henderson coming on for Oxlade-Chamberlain and Parker. Blanc responded with 2 changes of his own, Newcastle’s Hatem Ben Arfa and Sochaux striker Marvin Martin entering the fray for Yohan Cabaye and Florent Malouda. However, despite seeing an increasing amount of the ball, France struggled to find the final incisive ball to break down England’s rigid defense in front of their box.
England perhaps could have nicked the result themselves, James Milner’s dangerous low ball from the right timely turned behind by Philippe Mexes. However, the sense of relief after the final whistle seemed to reflect the fact that it was France who ended the game (and indeed spent the last 10 minutes) on the front foot. England will take heart from their endeavour and look forward to pressing on against Sweden in Kiev on Friday.
SportsUN Man of the Match: Steven Gerrard (ENG).
France 1-1 England (1-1 HT)
France: Lloris, Debuchy, Rami, Mexes, Evra, Nasri, Cabaye (Ben Arfa 84), Diarra, Malouda (Martin 84), Ribery, Benzema. Manager: Laurent Blanc.
England: Hart, Johnson, Terry, Lescott, Cole, Milner, Gerrard, Parker (Henderson 77), Oxlade-Chamberlain (Defoe 77), Young, Wellbeck (Walcott 90). Manager: Roy Hodgson.
Goals: 29 Lescott, 39 Nasri.
Referee: Nicola Rizzoli (ITA).
Bookings: 34 Oxlade-Chamberlain, 71 Young.