France 1 England 1: Lessons from a valiant Three Lions display
What did we learn from England's hard-earned point in a 1-1 draw with France in their Group D opener on Monday evening?
Manchester City contingent have their say in Donetsk
There was a strong Manchester City theme to the opening game of Group D, with the main protagonists of a pulsating tie in Donetsk all hailing from the Eastlands outfit. Patrice Evra’s reckless foul on James Milner resulted in a free-kick on the wide right. England captain Steven Gerrard delivered a curling cross into the French area for Joleon Lescott to power a thunderous header past Hugo Lloris. It was a richly deserved goal for Roy Hodgson’s side after a positive start, but Laurent Blanc’s men, unbeaten in 21 games, responded. Samir Nasri’s set-piece found Alou Diarra, who drew a superb reaction save from City goalkeeper Joe Hart, but the Three Lions failed to take heed. Moments later, Franck Ribery cushioned a pass into Nasri’s feet, and the City midfielder guided a rasping right-footed shot past Hart’s out-stretched hand at the near post. In doing so, he became the first player to score past his club goalkeeper at an international tournament since Dutch playmaker Wesley Sneijder beat Brazil’s Júlio Cesar at the World Cup in 2010.
England take heart from defensive performance
For all the debate surrounding Rio Ferdinand’s omission from Hodgson’s Euro 2012 squad, England excelled defensively against a dangerous French outfit. The biggest challenge was keeping France’s playmaker Ribery quiet – the Bayern Munich midfielder had scored in each of his country’s three pre-tournament friendlies. The 29-year-old started on the left, but cut inside looking to draw Glen Johnson out of position. But England nullified his threat, and despite some ropey moments on the opposite wing with Mathieu Debuchy breaking forward at regular intervals, Ashley Cole also looked relatively comfortable. In midfield, Gerrard and Scott Parker at times dropped too deep, but it served to flood the space in front of Hart’s area and limit Karim Benzema’s threat. The 24-year-old was forced to drift into midfield in search of possession, and the striker, who scored 21 goals in 35 La Liga appearances last season, was afforded very little time and space. Next up for England is a dangerous Swedish side who scored 31 goals in qualifying – third only behind the Netherlands and Germany – and Zlatan Ibrahimović who netted 28 goals in 32 appearances.
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s time will come
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, aged 18 years and 301 days, became the sixth youngest and England’s second youngest player to feature at a European championship, and the Arsenal forward was impressive in his first competitive game for the national team. In the second minute, any questions raised about his competence defensively were dismissed as he pinched the ball from French right-back Debuchy, and broke forward. The Southampton youth graduate was following in the footsteps of Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney as the latest England protegee seeking to make an electric impact on European football’s biggest stage. While he may have fallen short in terms of emulating Owen’s outstanding solo effort against Argentina in 1998, and Rooney’s surging run which resulted in England’s penalty against France in 2004, Oxlade-Chamberlain still provided a vital outlet for Gerrard and Parker, who sprayed possession out to the youngster. His elegant footwork and bustling runs caused the French defence problems and helped win England a series of timely free-kicks, giving his central midfielders time to refuel. There is still time for Oxlade-Chamberlain to make his blockbuster impact at Euro 2012.
Milner’s selection served its purpose
Hodgson’s decision to start with James Milner will certainly have been motivated by the midfielder’s defensive capabilities to help Glen Johnson harness the threat from France’s dangerous left wing. The City utility man only scored three times in 36 appearances last season, and the 26-year-old was used sparingly by Roberto Mancini as their Premier League title challenge reached its climax. His lack of first-team action was evident when Young slipped his former Villa team-mate one-on-one with Lloris, and although Milner skipped past the French shot stopper with ease, he was unable to guide his effort into the vacated net. Admittedly, it was Milner who won the free-kick which led to Lescott’s goal, but in an offensive sense, Theo Walcott would have been a more adventurous option on the right wing and should start against Sweden. Where Milner struggled offensively, he played his part in a resilient defensive display from England. He carried out his duties, tracking the dangerous runs of Ribery and Evra, and he made some vital interceptions throughout the course of valiant point for England.