The Euro 2012 Group D opener at Donetsk on Monday promises to be a cracker of a match as underachieving European giants France and England square off against each other in a renewal of a long standing football rivalry.
Roy Hodgson’s men have endured an injury-hit build-up the tournament with four players withdrawing from the squad since it was announced last month. But the England boss has confirmed there are no further fitness concerns in the camp and the team are raring to go amid an atmosphere of lowered expectations going into this competition. A key reason for that, as well as the high-profile withdrawals and omissions, is the absence of Wayne Rooney for this game as he serves the first of a two-game suspension for his red card in Montenegro last year. And the rest of the team will need to be near their best given that the Three Lions start as underdogs against Laurent Blanc’s side.
France are unbeaten in 21 games under Blanc and will be looking to erase memories of the shambles that occurred under Raymond Domenech at the World Cup two years ago. Les Bleus finished bottom of their group with the team in disgrace after boycotting training in South Africa but French supporters may prefer to look back to the memory of when these sides met in 2004. France won in the sides’ opening game of UEFA EURO 2004 despite being behind when the clock struck ninety minutes. That tournament was England’s last taste of European Championship action until this game. The so-called Golden Generation are all but gone. But Hodgson will be hoping that could yet work in England’s favour.
France coach Laurent Blanc is unlikely to risk midfielder Yann M’Vila against England as deputies Alou Diarra and Blaise Matuidi have recovered well from respective knee and hamstring problems. M’Vila has struggled with a thigh injury but otherwise Blanc has had few fresh concerns to deal with since Loic Remy dropped out of the squad with a thigh problem of his own at the end of May. Karim Benzema will start ahead of Olivier Giroud in attack following his dazzling display in Les Bleus’ final pre-tournament friendly against Estonia, while Philippe Mexes is likely to retain his place despite pressure from backup Laurent Koscielny.
Several questions of strategy, form and fitness still surround England manager Roy Hodgson’s team selection. John Terry returned to training on Thursday following a hamstring complaint and should start alongside Joleon Lescott in central defence, with Phil Jagielka waiting in the wings. At the opposite end of the pitch, both Andy Carroll and Danny Welbeck have staked claims to the lone striking role, with Wayne Rooney suspended. Welbeck scored in the Three Lions’ last friendly against Belgium and is expected to get the nod ahead of Carroll. On the right flank, James Milner is almost certain to start, while on the end of the pitch, young Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain may be given a chance ahead of the likes of Theo Walcott and Stewart Downing.
Played – 28
France Wins – 8
Draws – 4
England Wins – 16
France – WWWWD
06-Jun-12 – Friendly – France 4-0 Estonia
01-Jun-12 – Friendly – France 2-0 Serbia
28-May-12 – Friendly – France 3-2 Iceland
01-Mar-12 – Friendly – Germany 1-2 France
16-Nov-11 – Friendly – France 0-0 Belgium
England – WWLWW
02-Jun-12 – Friendly – England 1-0 Belgium
27-May-12 – Friendly – Norway 0-1 England
01-Mar-12 – Friendly – England 2-3 Netherlands
16-Nov-11 – Friendly – England 1-0 Sweden
12-Nov-11 – Friendly – England 1-0 Spain
KEY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Franck Ribery (France)
The Bayern Munich winger has been in top form this season for both, club and country. The former Marseille man has been inspirational in helping his German club reach the finals of the Champions League and the German cup. The 29-year-old’s pace, trickery, passing, movement, ability to cut inside from the flanks and finishing will be of huge threats to the England defence.
Karim Benzema (France)
The inform Real Madrid striker will spearhead France’s attack. The former Lyon man has been in top form for Real Madrid this season scoring 32 goals for the Spanish champions in all competitions and will be hoping to replicate the same form for his country. Benzema’s ability to create a goal or make a key pass with very little space will be one of the major threats to the English defence.
Steven Gerrard (England)
Liverpool’s inspirational captain will be looking to inspire and motivate his England teammates when they face the French later today. In the absense of Wayne Rooney for the first two games, Gerrard is the key man and England’s hopes of making it through to the quarters will rest on his shoulders. He would be the main creative source in the midfield and his glorious through-balls and long thunderous strikes could hurt the opposition.
Ashley Young (England)
The Manchester United winger could be England’s main man against France today, as he will be playing as the support striker just behind Danny Welbeck or Andy Carroll – whoever starts. Young has an outstanding record for England, as he averages a goal and a assist in his every three matches. He ability to make the important runs behind the defenders and put in some dangerous crosses, could really pose a threat to the French defence.
France (4-2-3-1): Hugo Lloris (C); Matthieu Debuchy, Adil Rami, Philippe Mexes, Patrice Evra; Alou Diarra, Yohan Cabaye; Hatem Ben Arfa, Samir Nasri, Franck Ribery; Karim Benzema.
France are expected to start with their tried and test 4-2-3-1 formation which helped them qualify as group winners. The defence looks well set and the experience of Patrice Evra is expected to get the nod ahead of Manchester City’s Gael Clichy. Yann M’Vila has recovered from his ankle injury but is not going to be risked and played in today’s game and instead the Marseille midfielder Alou Diarra is expected to start alongside Newcastle’s Yohan Cabaye in the center of midfield. The creative trio of Hatem Ben Arfa, Samir Nasri and Franck Ribery will play just behind the target man up top, the inform Karim Benzema.
England (4-4-1-): Joe Hart; Glen Johnson, John Terry, Joleon Lescott, Ashley Cole; James Milner, Scott Parker, Steven Gerrard (C), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain; Ashley Young; Danny Welbeck.
England are expected to play the same 4-4-1-1 formation, which they used for their previous two friendlies against Norway and Belgium. The safe hands of Joe Hart will be in goal and will be guarded by a strong and discipline defence consisting of Johnson, Terry, Lescott and Ashely Cole. The work rate of James Milner is expected to see him get the nod ahead of Theo Walcott on the right side of the midfield, while Parker and skipper Gerrard will play in the center of the four man midfield. The misfiring Stewart Downing is expected by many to play on the left side but for me it would be the youth and pace of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain ahead of Downing. Ashley Young will be in the number10 role just behind the striker Danny Welbeck.
France 11/8 Draw 21/10 England 21/10
The match is expected to be similar to the Germany-Portugal game. A cagey affair will both teams making sure they don’t lose their opening game. Both the teams have a lot of attacking talent and also have individual players who could turn the game around single handedly. France would dominate the game a lot, while the Three Lions would be happy to sit back and absorb all the pressure and hit the French on the break or on the counter. The discipline of English defence will help them get atleast a point from this game.
Predicted Score – France 1-1 England