Euro 2012: France 1-1 England
A spirited, steady and satisfactory England performance was enough to secure a draw against France in Donetsk tonight. While Hodgson’s team started both halves well, large swathes of the game were defined by English containment of unpenetrative French pressure. Neither side laid down a marker as likely tournament winners, but both will be satisfied with a draw that protects their interests of advancing in the competition.
England sprang a surprise with the selection of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, gambling on a raw talent over the claims of established- but ultimately unexceptional- alternatives. Allied to a strike force of Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young, England were not lacking in attacking outlets, but the prevalent pre-game worry was that possession would be too elusive to make much use of them.
The opening exchanges were promising. Oxlade-Chamberlain demonstrated his intent as he pick pocketed Debuchy , but he was unable to find Welbeck in the penalty area. France soon repelled, but Karim Benzema was unable to grasp control as he was crowded out in England’s box. France started to find their feet, with first Franck Ribery breaking England’s offside trap to earn a corner, and soon after defeating Scott Parker. In between these attempts, Samir Nasri fired menacingly wide.
But England were settling and when James Milner broke through, Young delivered the perfect through ball. Milner’s heavy touch took him past Hugo Lloris, but with a manageable angle, fired wide on his left foot. A golden chance was spurned.
Nasri and Ribery were busy irritants to the English defence, but were lacking the required dazzle to cause too much distress. Indeed, the game entered something of a lull as the game entered its second quarter.
Enter Joleon Lescott in the 30th minute. A retaken free kick, perfectly delivered by captain Steven Gerrard, was met by the Manchester City defender as he found himself goalside of Alou Diarra and crashed a towering header into the net. The power was too much for Lloris. 1-0 England.
It was important that England did not retreat, but for the remainder of the half, they did precisely that. A similar heading opportunity soon presented itself it to France, with Diarra twice failing to make amends for losing Lescott five minutes earlier. Hart was equal to his initial header, and the Marseille midfielder could only divert the rebound wide.
The French were not to be denied, however, as they fired back five minutes before the break. France combined too easily around the England area as Nasri found a pocket just outside the box. Belated attempts to close down Nasri’s precise shot unsighted Joe Hart, and France’s most effective player on the night found the corner of the net. 1-1.
As the first half drew towards a close, France were monopolising possession. As England ebbed, France flowed, but fortunately Les Bleus acted as if on instruction to shoot from distance, limiting their effectiveness and as England dropped deeper, the half-time whistle was welcome.
England reasserted themselves at the start of the second half, with a more assured and imposing demeanour on the ball. Gerrard made a rare burst forward but an apparent foul on the edge of the French box left referee Rizzoli unmoved. France were still threatening, however, and it seemed the game might become more stretched with England unwilling to merely contain their opponents, even if Rizzoli again failed to blow up as Glen Johnson strode past Ribery only to be felled.
As France began to respond, England showed that they had learned their lesson from Nasri’s goal, as both Gerrard and Parker closed down long-range efforts. With England short in the centre of midfield, however, the French were happy to continue channelling combinations through the middle. The door to the English goal was not just shut, however, but rarely knocked upon. When it was, Johnson and Lescott were both on hand to shut off dangerous advances.
With England tiring, Parker and Oxlade-Chamberlain were replaced by Henderson and Defoe. Cabaye’s rasping effort flew wide as eyes now turned to the clock with 10 minutes to go- French pressure had become insistent. As with the opening 45 minutes, France had grown as the second half went on, and looked by far the likelier scorers of a winning goal. Occasional English threat still lingered, however, as Welbeck just failed to reach Milner’s cross at the near post.
There was much to build on here for England, especially with Rooney to add. But they will need to make more sustained impressions in both the middle and final third if they are to succeed, especially if they want to outperform the French against Sweden and Ukraine.
England: Hart, Johnson, Terry, Lescott, Cole, Milner, Gerrard (c), Parker (Henderson 77’), Oxlade-Chamberlain (Defoe 77’), Young, Welbeck (Walcott 90’)
France: Lloris (c), Debuchy, Mexes, Rami, Evra, Cabaye (Ben Arfa 84’), Diarra, Malouda (Martin 84’), Nasri, Ribery, Benzema
Referee: Nicola Rizzoli (Italy)