England & France started their Euro 2012 campaign with a point-a-piece following a closely contested 1-1 draw in Donetsk; it was Hodgson’s men that took the lead through Joleon Lescott before being pegged back by a wonderful Samir Nasri strike just before half time.
Before the match Roy Hodgson named a largely expected starting eleven, with the possible exception of Alex Oxlade Chamberlain who was chosen over Liverpool winger Stewart Downing. Ashley Young continued in an attacking midfield role just behind Danny Welbeck who was up front, a combination that served England so well in their 1-0 win against Belgium just over a week prior to the tournament at Wembley.
France began the match with an impressive side, four of whom in Evra, Nasri, Cabaye and Malouda currently play in the Premier League. Samir Nasri & Franck Ribery would provide trickery and pace down the wings whilst Karim Benzema would play in a more central role which saw the French line up in their now customary 4-3-3 formation.
After the obligatory national anthems were played, the game began with England kicking off proceedings in the first period of the match. The game began with rather a slow pace, both sides opting to try and keep possession rather than venture too far forward. In the odd foray in the opening 10 minutes, France managed to win a free kick that came to nothing, whilst England were looking more assured of the two sides in the middle of the park. With just under eleven minutes gone, Samir Nasri tried his luck from 20 yards out but he could only manage to fire into the side netting as the first attempt of the match was registered.
We then had a period of England pressure, something that was started off thanks to superb closing down by Danny Welbeck by the dugouts. It also became apparent the referee wasn’t going to do England any favours at around this time, after he denied Ashley Young a blatant free kick after being taken down by United team mate Patrice Evra. It was England though who created the first clear cut opportunity though as Ashley Young threaded a lovely ball through to the on rushing Milner who took it round the goalkeeper before hitting a left foot shot into the side netting much to the nation’s disbelief. Despite the awful miss it was great invention by England, in particular Young who used great vision to find former Villa team mate Milner.
France then began to come back into the game as Cabaye forced Joe Hart into a low stop which was eventually smothered upon by the former Shrewsbury man. Les Bleus continued to look confident on the ball, switching the play from right to left whenever possible without really threatening the Three Lions’ defence.
James Milner was looking like England’s main outlet on the right hand side and so it proved when he won a free kick for England with just under 30 minutes gone. As always is the case with a big moment in the match, we had a momentary pause whilst a second ball was removed from the field of play. The game quickly resumed with Gerrard flighting a delightful ball into the box that found the head of an unmarked Lescott who powered home past captain Hugo Lloris. That was Lescott’s first International goal and one that could well have been of extraordinary significance.
With just over ten minutes to go until half time Oxlade Chamberlain got himself in the referee’s book following a rash challenge. From the resulting free kick Joe Hart pulled off a terrific save from Diarra’s bullet header as England maintained their slender lead, but only just.
As always seems to be the case at major tournaments though, just as it looked like we could go into half time with a lead, Samir Nasri pegged us back to 1-1. The City talisman was given the ball about 20 yards from goal and unleashed a good strike under very little pressure that found its way between the post and Joe Hart. Whilst some may criticise Hart for his part in the goal, he was given a very late view of the ball due to Gerrard making a last gasp attempt to close down the ball.
That was the end of the first half action though as France continued to try and press to nab a second goal, but to no avail. Going into half time it could be argued that 1-1 was a fair scoreline, although both sides had chances to go into the second half in a far more dominant position.
We entered the second half at a far slower pace than the one at which we ended the first, although England almost went behind straight away. James Milner who was so impressive going forward in the opening half played a short ball back to Joe Hart who was forced to confront Manchester City team mate Samir Nasri before coming away the victor. The referee was continuing to be the source of England’s frustration, refusing Gerrard a free kick after he was blocked off just outside the French penalty area.
England were dictating the play, something that was confirmed when the ITV camera’s cut to a shot of a rather plump Frenchman half a kip in the stands. Despite the prolonged period of possession, England couldn’t register a shot, something that was becoming increasingly frustrating to those of us viewing back home. Benzema who was largely anonymous in the opening 45 then hit a sweet strike from 25 yards out with superb technique; Hart though was more than equal to it and gathered comfortably for the umpteenth time.
The game was becoming increasingly end to end, only good work by Johnson to close down Benzema denied France the opportunity to take the lead for the first time. Oxlade Chamberlain was then given a chance to attack, unfortunately though his neat interchange with Welbeck was thwarted by the French defence just as the Southampton academy product was ready to play in the lone striker.
Roy Hodgson decided to make a double substitution in an attempt to find that all important winner. The infamous goal poacher Jermain Defoe was brought on in place of the tiring Oxlade Chamberlain who enjoyed a good afternoon at The Donbass Arena - he’s done his chances the world of good in staking a claim for a place against Sweden. Jordan Henderson was also brought on in an attempt to add some creativity to the midfield as Parker was running out of steam in another tireless performance from the Tottenham work horse.
Despite the two changes from Hodgson it was France and in particular Cabaye who were looking more dominant going into the closes stages – Cabaye’s 25 yard half volley that was heading for the top corner was blocked superbly by the faultless Welbeck. Benzema who had been the main threat then tried his luck once more; however his curling effort was deflected wide by the head of Gerrard as England clung on to what would be a deserved draw.
Laurent Blanc then made a double change of his own, with Marvin Martin coming on for Chelsea’s Florent Malouda, whilst Newcastle’s Hatem Ben Arfa replaced the impressive Cabaye for the final five minutes. England went on the attack one more time with Man of the Match Milner’s low ball into the box forcing Mexes to prod behind for a corner which enabled Theo Walcott to replace Welbeck. The final attempt of the end to end encounter was once again from Benzema, his long range effort bounced just in front of Joe Hart, however the City ‘keeper wasn’t embarrassed and he claimed the ball comfortably as the referee blew his whistle to signal the end of the Group D encounter.
All in all a very impressive display from England who start the tournament with a point against a heavily fancied France side that extend their own unbeaten run to 22 matches. Roy Hodgson will also be pleased that England managed to defend well and play good football at times, although their lack of attempts on goal may cause some concern. All in all though it was a largely successful start to Euro 2012, with games against Sweden & Ukraine to come, you wouldn’t mind betting England manage to make it through to that dreaded Quarter Final stage once more.