England 1 France 1 Euro 2012 Match Report
Yesterday the fans of Spain and Italy switched on their TVs looking forward to finding out how good their teams were going to be in Euro 2012. Today, England fans switched on theirs. But the adjective going through their minds wasn’t how good.
To be fair, the preparations on the field had gone reasonably well (if you accept that winning football matches is more important than actually playing football). Off the field, things had been not been so good. Plagued by a series of injuries which suggested even God had got fed up of watching the Gerrard/Lampard midfield partnership fail and had decided to intervene England had been forced to draft in a number of replacements. Bafflingly amongst them were Jordan Henderson and Martin Kelly but not Rio Ferdinand. Originally Ferdinand was left out for “footballing reasons” but Hodgson, realising that with Martin Kelly picked ahead of him this explanation wasn’t going to fly anymore, now explained that Ferdinand had too much “stature”. Which I think translates as he has too much experience and ability to play for his country. Perhaps Hodgson feared he would make the ranks of journeymen in the squad feel inadequate. Who knows? The upshot was that Hodgson effectively retired Ferdinand from international football because he wasn’t going to pick him and he was too good to not be picked. Instead he drafted in players who are blatantly not good enough to be picked and so can’t really complain when they aren’t. I’m all for harmony in the squad but you can take things too far.
Furthermore Hodgson’s final utterances had hardly promoted confidence climaxing in this bizarre nugget of advice to his players, “Don’t get suicidal if things don’t work out for you!” Admittedly, it was refreshing for once not to hear an English England manager invoking “grit, passion and the bulldog spirit” but you can go too far in the other direction. And removing all sharp objects from the team hotel is probably that step too far.
Still there were causes for optimism. Mainly in the shape of the opposition. Whereas Spanish fans turn on TVs to see how good their team is and English fans turn on fearing how bad their team is French fans turn on wondering if their team will be there at all. Ever since Zinedine Zidane ended his glorious career with an inglorious headbutt the French national side have been tearing themselves apart at tournaments culminating in their infamous strike during the last world cup. It was sad to think but as the teams entered the stadium in Donetsk, expectation about England’s performance had fallen so low that our best hope seemed to rest on some Gallic Wildcat Industrial Action.
However, Hodgson had a welcome surprise in store with the selection of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain over Stewart Downing (Downing, as all Liverpool fans would agree, does not suffer from possessing too much “stature” not to mention goals and assists and therefore, unlike Ferdinand, was allowed to sit on the bench). But whether the Ox would be enough to compensate for the highly dubious central midfield partnership of Gerrard and Parker and the general English inability to KEEP THE BALL was very much open to question.
Mr Rizzoli blew the whistle. Was it time to add another year of hurt to the last forty five? Those of us who have lived through them all but magically managed to be born just too late for the last success feared the worst.
However, England started reasonably brightly. Oxlade-Chamberlain dispossessing his French counter-part and surging into the penalty area. Though this attack came to nothing England looked reasonably comfortable on the ball. For about three minutes. Soon, however, the all too familiar sight for England fans appeared: John Terry hoofing the ball aimlessly out of defence when under no pressure. Hodgson had described him as a warrior before the game not realising that England is probably the only team in the competition where this description of a football player would be seen as a compliment. Warriors don’t really do that much passing.
Having been invited to attack the French promptly did so forcing a couple of corners one of which saw Joe Hart uncharacteristically flapping at a cross. Things were beginning to look ominous.
However, ominous clouds sometimes clear without rain falling and England nudged back to get a toe-hold in the match. Scott Parker wisely decided to drop deep to collect the ball and deprive Mr Chelsea the opportunity for more trademark aimless hooves. It meant that England were outnumbered in midfield and generally playing deep and narrow but when opportunities arose they showed they could counter-attacked incisively. Milner timed an excellent diagonal run behind the French defence and was picked out by a precision pass from Young. He rounded the keeper and was, admittedly from a difficult angle, briefly given the sight of an open goal. His weak shot dribbled into the side-netting.
The game lost a little shape and tempo. France were the more ambitious team but Hodgson had two disciplined lines of four very close together and they were not giving the French any space to create chances.
It took a set-piece to break the deadlock. Milner was fouled on the right wing and Gerrard, who up to this point had been more invisible than a Higgs Boson, curled in a perfect cross. Lescott stole a metre on his marker and rose to power home an unstoppable header.
France didn’t react immediately but as half-time approached they gradually ratcheted up the pressure. England’s two lines of four dropped deeper and deeper until they were one line of eight on the six yard line. Nasri was given too much time on the edge of the penalty area and he rifled in a fierce low shot that beat Hart at his near post.
All square at the interval with France marginally the better team.
The second half played out in a similar fashion. France had more possession, more corners and more shots on goal but England still sporadically showed the ability to threaten on the break even though Wellbeck never really managed to get into the game and eventually gave way to Defoe.
What England did do was defend excellently as the French pressure mounted with Diarra dominating midfield and Ribery, Benzama and Nasri all inter-linking and finding ever more dangerous positions. But the resolve and discipline of the English rear guard held firm - they avoided giving away dangerous free kicks and the French never quite managed to establish the momentum required to overwhelm them. As the game petered out in the final minutes with the French monopolising the ball a draw felt like about the right result. Neither team will be too disappointed.
Overall Hodgson can be pleased with the result. He has certainly made England difficult to beat and they’ve probably earned the right to have their razors back. They may not be very good but neither are they very bad. And for England in a tournament that represents progress.