11 Jun 2012

Deflated expectations as England take on France

As England take on France in their opening game in the European championships, football writer and commentator John Anderson compares the mood this time to previous tournaments.

Two years ago Fabio Capello led England into the World Cup on an absurd tide of national triumphalism, made his players endure the isolationist folly of Rustenburg, and returned humiliated and discredited. Now, as England prepare to face the French amid the seemingly endless law of diminishing returns which has been the nation’s constant travelling companion, the contrast couldn’t be more stark.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an England campaign without a healthy dollop of pre-tournament chaos and controversy. To accusations of jewellery theft in 1970 and the dentist’s chair in Hong Kong in 1996 can be added Rio-gate. but overall the impression is of a relaxed squad existing within the twin realms of realistic ambition and a reassuring humility.


After the last World Cup defender Jamie Carragher claimed the players were “bored out of their minds”. No chance of that here. Within three days of arriving in Poland, Roy Hodgson’s Class of 2012 had attended a civic reception at a 19th century art gallery, trained in front of 3,000 local people at a stadium refurbished with FA money and made harrowing visits to the Holocaust sites at Auschwitz and Schindler’s factory.

Certainly an attacking axis of Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck could put the cat amongst the cockerels.

All this from a base camp right in the heart of Krakow’s main square which features countless bars, restaurants and nightclubs and a bugler who trumpets every hour of the day and night from the 14th century St Mary’s Basilica, whose twin towers dominate the skyline.

Manager Roy Hodgson will no doubt be hoping it’s a clarion call for his players, who go into their opening match, 900 miles away in Donetsk, with the lowest expectations of any England team since Test matches against the West Indies in the 1970s.


A combination of injuries, suspensions and, in the case of poor Jermain Defoe, the death of his father, has disrupted Hodgson’s preparations to counter a side which played England off the park at Wembley 18 months ago and boast some of the tournament’s most potent attacking talents.

Karim Benzema hit 21 La Liga goals for Real Madrid last season, Samir Nasri and Hatem Ben Arfa lit up the Premier League, and Franck Ribery has a score to settle with the English after suffering Champions league heartache with Bayern Munich against Chelsea. France also have a fine goalkeeper in Hugo Lloris, Florent Malouda seems to save his best performances for the national team, and manager Laurent Blanc is well versed in the way English teams operate from his spell as a Manchester United player.

But if England can maintain the defensive obduracy which has seen them yet to concede a goal during Hodgson’s two-match tenure, the hopes are that they may also be able to exploit apparent French weakness in the centre of defence, where the less than pacy Philippe Mexes partners the late-blossoming Adil Rami in his first major international tournament.

Certainly an attacking axis of Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck could put the cat amongst the cockerels if they combine as brilliantly as they did for the winning goal against Belgium in the final warm-up game at Wembley.

England and France - tournament under-achievers?


On the negative side, what that match again highlighted was England’s perennial inability to dominate possession and the carelessness with which it is often ceded. Hodgson will look to the likes of Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard to win and use the ball with greater determination and care, now that we are in a truly competitive environment.

Expect a conservative approach, with hard workers like James Milner and Stewart Downing preferred to the more expressive talents of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the flanks.

With the building of momentum such a key factor in tournament football, a repeat of the loss incurred against France in the first game of Euro 2004 would immediately put England on the back foot, especially if there’s a positive result in the other group match between Ukraine and Sweden in Kiev later in the evening.

‘Mustn’t lose’

And although he would never admit it in public, I suspect Hodgson sees France very much as a “mustn’t lose” rather than “must win” game, and would fly back to Krakow cheerfully whistling the Marseillaise if England were to pinch a point at the Donbass Arena.

But even if they get a fair wind and following seas, plus a long overdue slice of luck, no-one expects England to be lifting the trophy in the Ukrainian capital on 1 July. Then again, no-one gave a cat in hell’s chance to Denmark in 1992 or Greece 2004. Stranger things have happened.

John Anderson is in Poland and Ukraine as the England correspondent for talkSPORT. Follow @GreatFaceRadio on Twitter.