Tuesday, 12 June 2012

England v France review

England have not had a great record in opening games of the European Championships; they have failed to win on numerous occasions.  Even Euro 1996 on home soil started with a less than thrilling 1-1 draw with Switzerland.

Monday night they opened Euro 2012 with the daunting task of playing France in Donetsk, Ukraine.  Following two 1-0 friendly wins, it was also Roy Hodgson's first competitive fixture as England manager.  Since being appointed 42 days previously, Hodgson has had little time to prepare the team due to Chelsea's Champions League exploits, mounting injuries and even Wayne Rooney's suspension for the first two games means continuity has been amiss.

However, England performed well drawing 1-1 with the ever improving French team who are being steered by Laurent Blanc and extended their unbeaten run to 22 games.

England took the lead on the half hour when Joleon Lescott headed in a free-kick, yet the lead did not last long as Samir Nasri replied on 39 minutes fizzing a shot by clubmate Joe Hart, who maybe should have covered his near post better.  One rule of goalkeeping, never be beaten at your near post.

With the group England are in, having the France game first was a blessing.  You can focus all your efforts on that one game, to garner a positive result and England did enough with potency to maybe snatch a win; James Milner had a glorious chance in the first 15 minutes when he rounded Hugo Lloris and with the goal at his mercy could only slice wide. Admittedly, the ball was on his weaker left foot yet the ball should have been tucked away easily.

England played with a definite defensive midset; once the goal was scored they like Chelsea did against Barcelona famously - set about having two banks of four when they did not have the ball making it difficult for France to get round them.  Yet this came back to bite them as they sat far too deep, inviting pressure and possession.  Nasri's goal came from a shot that was not shut down quickly enough, he had ample time (too much time at this level) to get the ball out from under his feet and blast the shot in.  A good accurate shot, Hart may have been blinded by bodies but the ball could maybe have been pushed round the post.

This was a shame as minutes previously, Hart pulled off a brilliant point blank save from Alou Diarra and he looked assured at other long-distance shots from Karim Benzema later, yet he nearly had egg on his face by a Franck Ribery in the second half when an opportunistic shot nearly sneaked in at Hart's near post; something you would not have expected.  Luckily, the curse of bad England keeper performances in tournament play did not appear.

The team England played was set out to flood the midfield and combat the creative influence of Nasri, Yohan Cabaye and Ribery who played with free licence behind Benzema.  England had Scott Parker and Milner play in holding roles, with captain Steven Gerrard just ahead hoping to give him room to roam and support Danny Welbeck up front, whilst Ashley Young and Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain patrolled the wings.

Teenager Chamberlain started off brightly, being direct and showing intent to attack the full backs, yet he petered out by the end and it was no surprise he was substituted, the picking up of a caution did not help his freedom.  Young did well and showed his experience, yet he was not helpful in linking up with Welbeck who ran tirelessly.  The front three at times seemed to be fighting on their own; one attack in the second half had Young on the left wing, with possession but only two targets near the area.  This can be considered a missed chance as France left a lot to be desired in their defensive scheme; Glen Johnson got a lot of joy down the right wing and Ashley Cole sometimes found himself of acres of room on the left wing - a sign that France play too narrow and too often down their left side with Patrice Evra overlapping Ribery.

There was hope that Gerrard would be talismanic during this tournament, due to being entrusted with the captaincy and not having to take turns of going forward with Frank Lampard (injured but clearly missed), Gerrard does not time his runs into the box like Lampard expertly does so, or like Cesc Fabregas did for Spain's goal against Italy on Sunday.  Gerrard at times looks laboured with his running, and got tired by the end.

Whilst England's defence was stout and solid, the French did not offer much though you expect the French to improve as the tournament go on.  However, both sides should be wary of the other sides in the group.  Ukraine and Sweden served up a great encounter as the co-hosts won 2-1.  Ukraine have the home support, play with a unity of a team and now have a folk hero scoring goals, Andrei Shevchenko scoring two well-taken headers to cancel out Zlatan Ibrahimovic's opener.

Sweden who play England next on Friday 15th looked good in defence and Zlatan looked deadly at times, they will be a tough team for England to break down.  Something England will struggle to do so if they play the same team as expected; ultimately, England (like Sweden) need to win the game to consider reaching the quarter finals meaning the game could well be open as both teams seek a victory.  If the game is open, this could suit England with their pace up front.  A victory over Sweden would be welcome, as having to play Ukraine last and if a victory is needed then would be a tough task irrespective of the returning Wayne Rooney.

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