Euro 2012: #2 An Unbeaten Start

England 1-1 France – 11/6/12, 5pm 

“I’ve got to be very proud of their performance. I didn’t think that there was any player on the field that let us down.” [Roy Hodgson] 

“Waterloo, Agincourt and now Donetsk,” was the rousing cry from ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley just before kick-off, referencing famous battle grounds for England and France down the years. Football match ups are often cited as ‘battles’ now rather than games. Few held out much hope for the English in this battle pre-match. The build-up has been very low key, almost downbeat; a first before a major tournament in my lifetime. 

With the change of management a few weeks before, as Italian ‘Postman Pat’ Capello was replaced by ‘Roy the Redeemer’, the pessimism was understandable. Injuries to key players like Lampard and Cahill coupled with the suspension of Wayne Rooney haven’t helped. The opposition, whilst hardly world-beaters, could all be tough in their own ways; France unbeaten in twenty-one games, Sweden traditionally tricky for us and Ukraine buoyant in front of home support. But still I held out hope. I believed. 

Well, it’d be weird not to go into the tournament with at least a little blind optimism, wouldn’t it? We’ve become accustom to it. I didn’t know much about the French team going into the game apart from a couple of them play in the Premier League and their main man is Christian O’Connell look-a-like Franck Ribery. And the manager is the fantastically calm Laurent Blanc. By contrast I’ve been watching with interest a younger, fresher and inexperienced England side led by the Redeemer over the past two weeks in friendly wins against Norway and Belgium. Hardly the cream of European football but wins nonetheless. The performances in those games were strong, resolute and very hard to break down and beat. England defended in numbers and were happy to allow the other side to have possession without ever looking threatened. 

These tactics worked a treat in the friendlies; the big question was how would this fare against better teams? The answer in terms of the France match was positive. On reflection there were many positives from the opening game. The pre-match chat focussed on the selection of eighteen-year-old winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. He is of rare ilk; a likeable Arsenal player. I was really looking forward to seeing how he would fare against Patrice Evra and the other full-back Debuchey. As was Iain Dowie on Sky Sports News, who changed his prediction from a draw to an England win solely because ‘The Ox’, as he’s now known, was starting. He didn’t disappoint. He was full of running and full of positive movements. The biggest difference between him and fellow Arsenal and England winger Theo Walcott, who I don’t rate, is that he does have an end product. If Oxlade-Chamberlain bursts down the wing he is able to pick a pass out or deliver a decent cross; Walcott isn’t. You’d also back him to score one-on-one more often than Walcott.  

If the new boy was the most exciting prospect, it was the experienced players who showed their class during the game. Captain Steven Gerrard, free to run the show in Lampard’s absence, did just that and was at the forefront of the attacking play. He provided the cross for the goal; a bullet header from Joleon Lescott to grab his first international goal. Scott Parker did a terrific job protecting the defence and keeping the French at bay. Ashley Cole and John Terry, so often making all the wrong decisions off the pitch, did everything right on it. Watching the game live on the big screen in Dick’s Bar, the Albion’s very own in-stadium boozer at the Amex, we all came away from the game pleased with the result and, of course, very pleased with the performance. 

The French equaliser nine minutes after Lescott’s opener was a gut-wrenching moment. Questions were asked of goalkeeper Joe Hart, beaten at his near post by fellow Manchester City man Samir Nasri (straight out of the Arsenal book of ‘Players you only need to look at to dislike’) but it was a great strike. The biggest groan came when James Milner, also a title winner with City this year, rounded the goalkeeper and found the goal gaping. Unfortunately he then looked up to see the fans gasping as he panicked and put the ball wide. It was a golden chance and one which I thought we would have regretted at the time. Yet another one of those ‘What If?’ moments for England. 

Before the game ITV reminded us of what a disaster the opening game has been for England in European Championships gone by. We have never won our first game. That horrible record continues but we would have taken a draw pre-match and it kicks off our campaign nicely. France were a good side, indeed are a good side, but perhaps we gave them too much credit. Gordon Strachan on the ITV highlights show said it was as if we thought we were playing the classic Brazil side of the past we were that pessimistic. Their long unbeaten run continues since the disaster of the last World Cup, as does ours under The Redeemer. 

ITV match pundits Jamie Carragher (who is surprisingly compelling) and Gareth Southgate were pleased with the performance. Frenchman Patrick Vieira also thought England looked solid. The negatives came from the French players themselves. Patrice Evra thought France deserved the win and they were the only side playing football and Florent Malouda, a Champions League winner with Chelsea this season, agreed. He couldn’t complain too much though, as he admitted, his team won the big one by playing a similar style. 

Watching the game and the coverage back a couple of days later I stand by my feelings of the performance at the time; England looked hard to beat and in tournament football that is never a bad thing. Strachan and co showed on the highlights just how England’s tactics have changed to be more solid and narrower. One example showed how Gerrard of two years ago might have been rushing to close down every French attack thirty yards out but this time round was happy to keep them at arm’s length and deal with the pressure in numbers rather than risk being caught out of position, allowing room for a simple one-two. Hodgson’s tactical knowledge was one of his main selling points; the Redeemer is proving the FA right at the moment. 

There are still many questions; are the over-30’s capable of playing two games in four days? Will our youngsters be able to replicate their enthusiasm and confidence or will inexperience lead to mistakes? And is it possible to idolise Roy The Redeemer Hodgson any more than I already do? So far, so very good. Next up on Friday is Sweden. We always play Sweden and they don’t lose to us. There’s just something about Roy’s team which seems different. Can we mash the Swedes? The signs are good. 

About Mark O'MEARA
I am Mark O'MEARA.

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