The day is finally upon us. Montenegro, Wayne Rooney’s red card, even Fabio Capello’s resignation – they all feel like distant memories as Roy Hodgson’s England prepare to get their UEFA Euro 2012 campaign underway with an extremely challenging fixture against France at Shakhtar Donetsk’s Donbass Arena on Monday. The game kicks off at 5pm British time, so I hope you all have very understanding bosses.
Group D is likely to be deceptively tricky and the game against France is therefore of vital importance for Hodgson’s side, and it’s not going to be easy. Lose on Monday, and they head into matches against Sweden and Ukraine essentially requiring two wins. Both games pose their own challenges and so a decent result against the French would go a long way to seeing England through the group unscathed.
Hodgson’s selection issues would appear to exist primarily at the front of the team and at the back. Some questions have predictable answers, like the inevitability of the team’s line-up very closely resembling a 4-4-2 formation, or the fact that one of that front two is very likely to be Ashley Young, who will variously play behind, alongside and – if the Norway friendly is anything to go by – ahead of a lone striker who could do with a little more service.
Despite Jermain Defoe now being available again, the striker in question will be either Danny Welbeck or Andy Carroll. They both linked up well with Young in the warm-up friendlies against Belgium and Andy Carroll respectively, albeit briefly. Welbeck’s exceptional finish from Young’s assist at Wembley last Saturday was a brief bright spot in a disappointing game, but while I’m leaning towards preferring Carroll I strongly suspect that it will be the Manchester United man that leads the line in Donetsk.
The other major question mark is at centre back, where Gary Cahill’s injury and withdrawal from the squad forces Hodgson into a decision as to who plays alongside John Terry – yes, John Terry, who arguably shouldn’t even be there.
The likelihood is that Phil Jagielka will get the nod ahead of Joleon Lescott, at least in part because the current Everton man occupies the right-hand side of the central defence while his former colleague operates on the left, where Terry resides for both club and country.
Les Bleus are expected (by my friends at French Football Weekly) to start with much the same line-up as the one that saw off Estonia in their final friendly, beating them 4-0 with goals from Franck Ribery, Jeremy Menez and Karim Benzema, who netted twice. Yann M’Vila will miss out through injury.
If Blanc does select the same team, Benzema will be supported by Yohan Cabaye, Samir Nasri, Ribery and Florent Malouda, with Alou Diarra completing the midfield. Adil Rami, Philippe Mexes, Patrice Evra and Mathieu Debuchy will serve as the defence in front of Lyon goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. It’s a formidable team and one that is undoubtedly the favourite in a game against England. Hodgson’s men will have an almighty task on their hands on Monday.
England midfielder Stewart Downing has been talking to the press this week, telling them that England aren’t going into the game half-cocked…
“We are confident we can get a result. We don’t fear them. We know they are a good team but so are we. We know their strength and weaknesses…If you look at our performances, we battered teams at times but we did not have the killer instinct.”
…and shining a light upon Liverpool team-mate Martin Kelly’s demeanour:
“He’s a quiet lad, goes about his business. He’s going to be a terrific player and is a real talent. The manager has seen his ability and he’s settling in quite well.”
France, meanwhile, are “calm”. Franck Ribery says that Les Bleus know the England players well:
“On Wednesday, I watched their friendly match against Belgium (a 1-0 win last Saturday) while having a massage. They defend really well and play on the counter attack. Up front they have either Andy Carroll or Danny Welbeck, who are two vastly different players. One (Welbeck) is more at ease on the ball, who likes to dribble and the other (Carroll) is more robust and physical. We will certainly do our homework on them. There are still a few days to go but we are going to approach this match calmly. There is no point in playing the game before it has even taken place as that would place unwanted pressure on us.”
And, of course, there’s the Ferdinand/Terry issue, which Laurent Blanc has now commented upon:
“I know Rio Ferdinand well and it’s true that it looks from my point of view that the choice not to pick him is not a footballing choice. There are clearly other things. I think that Rio Ferdinand is a very good player even if he is closer to the end of his career. It was very surprising for me to see that he was not picked despite all the injuries they have at the back. It’s not my business though and I don’t want to comment too much on England problems. I’m not England’s manager and if he made that choice it’s because it was the best choice for him.”
The match is now just a couple of days away and I can’t wait. However, I am not optimistic. France, while not being one of the favourites, are an impressive outfit and arguably capable of giving the likes of Spain and Germany a run for their money this summer. And with this potentially being the make-or-break game for England’s tournament, the pressure is on.
(Photo credit: adidas)