England taught a lesson by slick France at Wembley
On paper it was just a friendly, a non-competitive match against a nation still licking their wounds after a torrid World Cup campaign.
Yet the feeling around a packed out Wembley did not quite correlate with the facts. Regardless of the importance of the game, regardless of the strength of the opposition, this was still a chance for England to get one over their closest continental rivals.
Whilst France had come out of the World Cup in a state of crisis, England were far from on top of the world after an anticlimactic run of performances in South Africa. England would change, Fabio Capello said, and the team sheet on Wednesday night reflected that, with Kieran Gibbs, Jordan Henderson and Andy Carroll all being handed their first starts for the national side.
The opening ten minutes saw neither team take control, England’s only real effort coming courtesy of a Steven Gerrard free-kick, which he drilled low through the French wall before Hugo Lloris comfortably collected. At the other end Florent Malouda was offered enough space to test Ben Foster, but after fumbling his first effort to control the shot the Birmingham goalkeeper collected to relieve the pressure on the England back line.
As the half went on the French began to pose more of a threat to the hosts, with Gibbs often finding himself under pressure in his position on the left-hand side of the England defence. After five minutes of sustained pressure France made the breakthrough, with Karim Benzema playing a clever one-two with Malouda before slotting it past Foster to give the visitors a deserved lead.
France continued to control the game following their goal, dominating possession and playing cool and calculated football in the attacking half, looking to further extend their lead. England’s only respite came when Carroll cleverly intercepted the ball before playing it to Gerrard who then attempted to lay off Theo Walcott, but the Arsenal forward could not get to the ball. Lloris collected easily.
Carroll continued to trouble the France rearguard, first setting up James Milner, whose shot on target was saved by Lloris, before knocking down a Gibbs free-kick to Steven Gerrard who fired over from inside the penalty area and much to the relief of the watching French defenders.
If Capello was not aware of the passion associated with the fixtures between these two nations then he certainly did as the whistle blew to end the first half. Despite significant improvements in the closing stages of the first period the boos once again rang round Wembley – a clear sign that the performance -friendly or otherwise -was not good enough.
The England manager reacted at the break and made three substitutions, bringing on Micah Richards, Ashley Young and Adam Johnson whilst taking off captain Rio Ferdinand, Walcott and Gareth Barry. Laurent Blanc also made one change to try and maintain his side’s lead, taking off Philippe Mexes and bringing on Mamadou Sakho.
But England’s fortunes did not change. Bacary Sagna once again got the better of the inexperienced Gibbs and fired a ball in to the box which Samir Nasri missed before it fell to Mathieu Valbuena, who launched it in to the back of the net to further extend France’s lead.
England’s response after conceding was positive, with Adam Johnson being central to a number of attacking moves, notably floating a ball in towards Gerrard who headed off target from a tight angle, before firing another free-kick just over the bar. Despite being having had a rough time at the back Gibbs also looked more involved, pushing forward and playing a handful of dangerous balls in to the box.
With ten minutes to go England had their best chance of the evening so far when Adam Johnson fired a shot from the right which Lloris got a hand to before spilling it back out towards Gerrard, who despite having the whole goal to aim for managed to drag his shot wide. The disappointment on the Liverpool skipper’s face summarised not just that individual moment but England’s entire night.
With just five minutes to go Capello made his last change of the game, bringing on Peter Crouch for Gerrard. The Italian was instantly rewarded as the Tottenham striker fired in from Young’s corner to give the hosts a consolation goal.
The match may have ended with only one goal between the two teams, but England’s performance was undeserving of such a close scoreline. England’s football was far from free flowing and creative, with Carroll having to feed off scraps for the majority of his 70 minutes on the pitch.
It was only towards the end, when Capello’s side really had their backs to the wall, that the performance significantly improved. But Crouch’s goal was simply too little too late as France walked away deserved winners.