Euro 2012 Update
Euro 2012: France 1-1 England
England drew 1-1 with France in their opening Euro 2012 match when Samir Nasri equalised following Joleon Lescott’s opener
Briefly, there was the sense of a team who could give Euro 2012 a jolt. Steven Gerrard had just delivered a cross of such expertise it would have been impudent for Joleon Lescott not to apply the finishing touch. France’s 21-match unbeaten sequence was suddenly looking vulnerable and England were at least tempting us to believe they had the wit and gumption to end their record of never having won their opening game of this tournament.
Then the old failings returned. It was an evenly contested game but this is not an outstanding France side, certainly not on the evidence in Donetsk, and if England are to make a lasting impression on this competition they are going to have to learn to take better care of the ball and develop a more incisive passing style.
The lead was surrendered within nine minutes when Samir Nasri thumped a shot past Joe Hart from the edge of the penalty area and, after that, there were only sporadic moments when Roy Hodgson’s team threatened to make a more gratifying start to Group D.
The punishing conditions, extreme heat making way for intense humidity, offered a form of mitigation but it was still disappointing to see how little penetration England had in attack and their inability to get Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck on the ball more frequently. As for the Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain experiment, it was a bold selection on Hodgson’s part but the only thing that can be said is it did not work.
A draw still represents a reasonably satisfying evening’s work when the opposition have not lost a match since September 2010 and Hodgson was entitled to be pleased by all the usual English qualities of application and structure.
Nobody should be too surprised either that this team are still, very evidently, a work in progress when their preparations were so erratic. Hodgson has had only three games and, in those circumstances, there were encouraging signs of a team taking shape. All the same, England were too rigid, lacking fluidity in this functional 4-4-2 system.
France passed the ball more than twice the number of times of their opponents – 634 to 307. Just as tellingly, there were only 136 English passes in the second half, when there were conspicuous signs of a team fading.
They defended manfully, as England teams tend to do, and restricted their opponents to few clear opportunities. More disappointing was their own lack of penetration after that moment, on the half-hour, when Patrice Evra fouled James Milner on the right of England’s midfield and from the free-kick Lescott eluded his marker, Alou Diarra, to score from close range.
Gerrard’s delivery was so exquisite that Lescott had to do little more than get his header on target but it was difficult to think of another moment when England put in a decent cross and had players in the penalty area. Too often there were moments of exasperation. On one occasion, Milner failed to beat the first defender and when the ball came back to Glen Johnson he overhit the second cross in quick succession.
They had edged the game during the opening half-hour and might have scored earlier after Young’s pass split open the French defence for Milner to run clear, the one moment when England showed the invention to play the killer pass and have a midfielder breaking beyond the forwards. Milner’s first touch took the ball round Hugo Lloris but moved him further wide than he would have liked and he was unable to angle his shot, with his weaker left foot, into the net.
The disappointing part for Hodgson was the different response of the teams to the opening goal. It was robust from France, poor from England. Within five minutes Diarra had two headed opportunities, the first saved by Hart and the second turned wide while England struggled to clear. Then Patrice Evra and Franck Ribéry combined to give Nasri a sight of goal and his clever shot beat Hart, dipping into the bottom corner.
It was unusual to see England’s goalkeeper beaten at his near post but the credit should go to Nasri, who talked afterwards of deliberately deceiving his Manchester City team-mate. Hart, he said, would have been ready for a shot to the other side. Nasri has a habit of “opening up” and aiming across the goal. Instead, Nasri showed his intelligence by going for the opposite corner, even if he did spoil the moment a little by celebrating provocatively with a shushing gesture, which he said was directed at the media not the England bench.
Nasri was often France’s best player, with Karim Benzema generally well contained, and Ribéry darting in and out of the game. Mathieu Debuchy, a slick and attacking right-back, was also a frequent menace with his willingness to push forward, particularly in the first half when he exposed the gaps that Oxlade-Chamberlain left in his reluctance to track back.
The Arsenal teenager put in a willing performance but he looked callow, too, as might be expected for someone who has started only six Premier League games. He managed only 11 successful passes all evening and, once again, England’s left-wing is threatening to be a problem position, at least until Wayne Rooney is back from suspension and Young can move back out wide. England will