For thirty-five minutes in Donetsk earlier this evening, England confounded our expectations. We knew that tonights performance was unlikely to be the prettiest in the world and that manager Roy Hodgson had only had two friendly matches to attempt to fine-tune the practical – if somewhat reductionist – plan that he had in store for this competition. What we didn’t know, however, was how this system would react to playing against a team that could be considered amongst the best in this competition and, as with the riskiest of tactical experiments, we wouldn’t know whether this was likely to be successful until it was some way towards being too late to do very much about it. Such is football. Such is life.
Somehow or other, though, this policy of safety first looked for a while as if it might just work. The “two banks of four” – a phrase whose value has been plummeting in Euro 2012 I-Spy books over the last couple of weeks – held firm, and a French side that was playing as if it might possibly rather be relaxing on a beach somewhere couldn’t find a route through. At the other end of the pitch, meanwhile, England broke and nearly scored when a through-ball from Ashley Young released a slightly startled-looking James Milner through on goal. Milner did approximately half of the hard work in managing to take the ball around the French goalkeeper Lloris but was off-balance as he shot from an angle and saw his shot slap into the side-netting instead. So near, yet so far.
Respite was, for France, short-lived, though. England had settled into their skin more comfortably than France, and with thirty minutes played Patrice Evra clumsily barged Milner over on the right-hand side to concede a free-kick. The referee requested a re-take of the kick, and at the second attempt his perfectly weighted cross found Joleon Lescott, eight yards from goal and surprisingly unmarked, to power a downward header past Lloris and in to give England the lead. It took France just five minutes to fire a warning shot, a cross headed assertively goal-wards by Diarra which was outstandingly blocked by the hitherto nervy looking Joe Hart. The ball was then hooked back into the penalty area and Diarra was unlucky to see his close-range header squeeze just wide.
If this was the warning, then England didn’t hear it and four minutes later France were level. Franck Ribery received the ball on the right-hand side and appeared to be drifting with it towards nowhere in particular. Instead, however, and with English defenders not wishing to throw themselves in for a risky tackle, Ribery pulled the ball back for Samir Nasri to fire a crisp, low shot inside the near post and just wide of Harts outstretched fingers. There might have been an element of truth in the notion that the goalkeeper shouldn’t have been beaten inside his near post, but it was an exceptionally well-hit shot and Harts view of it may well have been obstructed by the morass of defenders between him and the ball. By half-time, England looked as if they were clinging on by their fingernails.
The first half didn’t exactly provide pills, thrills and bellyaches, but it was a roller-coaster of emotions in comparison with the second half. As the humidity caught up with the players, the match slowed to little more than walking pace with highlights of the half being largely limited to the histrionics of Ribery when faced with a tough – and, let’s face it, illegal – challenge from Glen Johnson, a couple of shots on goal that were charged down by defenders or gathered comfortably by the goalkeepers and the somewhat unexpected arrival on the pitch of Jordan Henderson, who performed with predictable anonymity but at least didn’t take to the pitch wearing clown shoes, as some might have been expecting.
With barely a couple of minutes to play, a low cross from Milner in the direction of Danny Welbeck was cut out by Mexes, but by this stage it was clear that both teams seemed reasonably satisfied to settle for a point a-piece. France had the greater technique – it sometimes felt as if the match ball took on strangely elastic qualities which made it bounce away at exaggerated angles when passed to English feet – but England held their shape well, worked very hard and vindicated, to a lesser or greater extent, Hodgson’s faith in caution. It was a point won for England and probably two points dropped for France, but it was better than anticipated, especially when we consider the last few months of chaotic preparation that the squad has had for these finals.
And this is the bare, stark fact that we should all probably consider when we are poring over the back pages of the nations newspapers tomorrow morning. We all knew that this was going to be hard work, that it probably wasn’t going to be easy on the eye and that it could all end in that familiar stinging feeling of defeat. We all knew that there was no way on earth that Roy Hodgson could meld this team into something approaching a unit that would set this tournament alight, that starting the competition against France would be a very difficult way to begin the tournament, and that no amount of chest-beating would or could alter this. There were slightly troubling reminders of tournaments past, most notably in Englands failure to be able to keep hold of the ball for anything like extended period of play, but overall this was in excess of most peoples predictions, even though qualifying still seems a long way off. Against moderate opposition, they have a chance, though, and that is a start. The apocalypse has been put off for a few days, at least.
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