Roy Hodgson has only had two matches in charge as England manager, and that is all the match practice he will get with his team before they face France in their opening group fixture of Euro 2012 on Monday.
History is against the Three Lions as they have lost 4 of their last 5 games against Les Blues. To make matters worse for Roy Hodgson’s men, the French will be coming into the game on the back of a 4-0 thrashing of Estonia, with impressive displays from Karim Benzema and Franck Ribery, extending Laurent Blanc’s unbeaten run with France to 21 matches.
On the surface at least, it seems a very tough match for England. But with football being football, anything could happen.
Gary Cahill (jaw), Frank Lampard (thigh), Gareth Barry (stomach) and John Ruddy (finger) are all ruled out of the tournament through injury.
But the good news for England is that all of the current 23-man squad took part in training on Tuesday and have flown out to their base in Krakow today, with all players expected to be fit for the first game against France.
Chelsea centre-back John Terry was the main concern for Roy Hodgson’s side with a hamstring scare but has been declared fit for the competition.
Unlike England, France have had just one major injury concern, with striker Loic Remy ruled out of the tournament with a hip injury.
Remy was in Laurent Blanc’s 26-man provisional squad for the tournament, but despite undergoing intensive rehabilitation at Clairefontaine (France’s national football centre), he wasn’t able to make the final 23.
When the final squad was announced on 29 May, defender Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and perennial unlucky-man Yoann Gourcuff were the unfortunate ones to also miss the cut.
Since the final squad was announced, France have come through their last two friendlies unscathed.
Final Squad For Euro 2012:
Goalkeepers: Hugo Lloris, Steve Mandanda, Cedric Carrasso
Defenders: Patrice Evra, Mathieu Debuchy, Philippe Mexes, Adil Rami, Gael Clichy, Anthony Reveillere, Laurent Koscielny
Midfielders: Franck Ribery, Samir Nasri, Yohan Cabaye, Mathieu Valbuena, Blaise Matuidi, Yann M’Vila, Alou Diarra, Marvin Martin, Hatem Ben Arfa, Florent Malouda
Forwards: Karim Benzema, Olivier Giroud, Jeremy Menez
England go into Euro 2012 and their first match against France on the back of an unbeaten qualifying run, having ended Group G as winners after winning five and drawing three of their eight matches.
Highlights include convincing wins against Bulgaria (4-0 at home and 3-0 away) and an impressive 3-1 victory away to Switzerland.
However, that was all under Fabio Capello, while with Roy Hodgson in charge, the Three Lions have laboured to 1-0 wins against Norway and Belgium, respectively.
Their form going into the match against Les Blues is solid, bu unspectacular.
Psychologically, it could give the England players a boost, knowing they’re a more defensively tight unit under Hodgson less likely to concede goals.
However, the team’s recent form won’t strike much fear into their opponents.
France will go into the tournament on the back of scoring nine goals in three matches, after warming up for the finals in Poland and Ukraine with wins over Iceland, Serbia and Estonia.
Having also beat Germany in a friendly away back in February, France will go into the tournament full of confidence having won all their games so far in 2012.
Manchester United winger Ashley Young could be England’s most important player in the game against France.
Most likely to be playing as the support-striker behind Andy Carroll, almost all of England’s forward play will go through Young, who’ll be tasked with linking-up with Carroll to create chances for himself and the striker, as well as receiving the ball from central midfield and trying to make as many key passes in the final third as possible.
Having scored six and assisted six from 21 England caps, with or without Wayne Rooney, Young could be the key player for the English through the tournament.
France under Laurent Blanc have undergone a football revolution, switching to a much more passing style of play. Therefore, if England is to disrupt France’s rhythm—a tactic manager Roy Hodgon loves to implement against his opposition—then Tottenham Hotspur holding midfielder Scott Parker will be vital to Hodgson’s plans.
Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart will also be a vital player for England. Why? Because he’ll be up against some of Euro 2012’s most in-form attackers in Karim Benzema, Franck Ribery and Olivier Giroud.
Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribery will be the most important player for France in their opening game against England.
The 29-year-old has had a good season in the Bundesliga, scoring 12 goals and making 12 assists, and will carry that form into Euro 2012, especially after scoring in all three of Les Blues’ preparation matches.
Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema will spearhead France’s attack, and his ability to create a goal or key pass with just an inch of space will see him be one of France’s biggest threats in the game against England and the rest of the tournament.
From 52 games for Real Madrid this season, Benzema has scored 32 goals and made 15 assists.
France’s goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, like his English counterpart Joe Hart, will also be a key player in this match, and that’s because of two things.
Firstly, he’ll face a considerable number of shots from the very much in-form Ashley Young, who’s position between the lines will make him a nightmare to man-mark. And secondly, with central defence France’s weak point, the whole nation will be looking to the Lyon keeper to stop the goals flooding in.
The game between France and England will see two similar formations but two very different tactical approaches.
Roy Hodgson’s England will be a very tight and efficient unit, and at times in the game, a back five or back six may be visible.
The Three Lions will also rely on quick breaks, counter-attacking through the middle and on the wings with the pace of Theo Walcott, Stewart Downing out wide and Ashley Young through the centre.
Laurent Blanc’s France, on the other hand, will seek to dominate possession, passing the ball around the midfield and building up play, giving players time to pick out runs in the final third and stretch the English defence to create openings.
England manager Roy Hodgson will most likely set up his team in his favoured 4-4-1-1 formation, with Ashley Young playing the supporting role behind a hold-up striker like Danny Welbeck or Andy Carroll.
Joe Hart is the automatic choice in goal given his experience and world-class ability, while the back four will undoubtedly consist of experienced players—especially since the first game could be the most important for England.
Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson are automatic choices for the full-back slots, while John Terry is England’s most experienced centre-back and Joleon Lescott’s England’s most in-form at the moment.
While in midfield, Hodgson will look for pace on the wings with Theo Walcott and Stewart Downing—the latter being picked over Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain again due to his experience.
This speed on the flanks will nicely supplement two deep-lying play makers in Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker—with captain Gerrard given more license to get forward and lead in attack as well as defence, while Parker will stay a bit more disciplined and give greater focus to breaking up France’s play and winning back possession for his team.
France manager Laurent Blanc has one similarity with England boss Roy Hodgson—they both prefer a similar formation.
However, unlike the defence-minded Hodgson, attack-minded Blanc likes his set-up to be more of a 4-2-3-1 than a 4-4-1-1.
Hugo Lloris, Patrice Evra, Mathieu Debuchy, Alou Diarra, Samir Nasri, Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema are all automatic choices due to their experience and form.
However, some positions aren’t so clear, especially at centre-back. It’s believed Blanc will go with his favoured pairing of Philippe Mexes and Adil Rami, due to their experience, but the duo haven’t been great for club and country in recent years, with many clamouring for Blanc to take a chance on the much-improved Laurent Koscielny.
That would be a risky choice, however, given Koscielny’s international inexperience and occasional nerves on the big stage.
While in midfield, the Steven Gerrard-esque role in the two-man central midfield is up for grabs. Yann M’Vila is expected to play there, but Yohan Cabaye has had much the better season for his club, Newcastle United.
The attacking midfield is also the cause of some debate in France, as while Mathieu Valbuena is a consistent performer for national side, the competition is big—with Hatem Ben Arfa, Marvin Martin and Jeremy Menez all enjoying great campaigns.
What will England have to do to beat France?
Trust In Hodgson
A change of manager is almost always a culture shock.
England certainly did not make the switch from Fabio Capello to Hodgson in such a fashion, and the players are said to have struggled with the new boss’s rigorous and repetitive training methods.
However, two workmanlike 1-0 wins in warm-up games against Norway and Belgium indicate that his methods are reaping rewards, after a fashion, and the players must trust in their manager to set the team up as he sees most fit.
Give Ashley Young Creative Freedom
A major handicap for England in their first European Championship campaign for eight years is the loss of their star striker, Wayne Rooney, who is suspended for the first two matches of the group stage. In his absence there is a glaring deficiency up front, both in terms of goals and creativity.
That is where Rooney’s Manchester United teammate Ashley Young comes in. The 26-year-old’s international career has blossomed during England’s qualification campaign, scoring three goals and setting up another three as England topped their group.
Having played a part in five England goals in their past five games, Young is the perfect player to fill the vacancy left by Rooney and support the main striker against France.
Consistency is Key
Hodgson is not renowned as the most versatile of managers. He values persisting with a well-drilled first 11 and challenging the opposition to try and break them down.
Like many other teams ranked far below them in the world, Belgium were by far the technically superior in their recent visit to Wembley and controlled the possession. England concentrated their efforts on containing their opponents and hitting them on the counter, and they were rewarded with a 1-0 win.
That certainly seems to be England’s best bet if they hope to defeat France, too. A midfield base of Scott Parker and James Milner and a quick but hard-working front line of Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young appears to be the best England can do with the tools at their disposal.
The injury to Gary Cahill sustained in that match will necessitate a change in defence, but otherwise England would benefit from staying consistent in their team selection.
Stop Karim Benzema
Stopping the opposition’s star striker may be one of the most obvious game plans, but when it comes to Benzema it is imperative England limit his opportunities as much as possible.
The 24-year-old has just finished his best ever season at club level, scoring 21 league goals for Real Madrid as they won La Liga as well as netting seven and setting up another five in the Champions League, making him more productive in Europe than even Cristiano Ronaldo.
The former Lyon striker opened the scoring in a 2-1 friendly win at Wembley the last time France played England, and his brace in Tuesday’s 4-0 win over Estonia suggest he will carry that form with him onto the international stage.
Play the full 90 minutes
The last time these two sides met each other in a competitive match was at Euro 2004, when they also faced off in their opening group match.
Frank Lampard’s first-half goal for so long looked like claiming a major win over the reigning European champions, only for Zinedine Zidane to score twice in second-half stoppage time to break English hearts.
England still progressed from their group after beating Croatia and Switzerland, but their punishment for letting that lead against France—and consequently, top spot in the group—slip from their grasp was a quarterfinal against hosts and Group A winners Portugal, which they lost.
Should a similar set of circumstances play out this summer, England would be destined for a meeting with defending champions Spain.
France will no doubt dominate possession with their emphasis on passing and will end up with more shots on goal and possibly more corners and free-kicks.
However, with Roy Hodgson an expert on creating tight defences to weaken the threat of sides relying on technical ability, England could end up having the better day come next monday.
Psychologically, France will go into the game in the ascendancy thanks to their better form, but if England stifle their play within the first 20 minutes, frustration could easily creep into their game and cause them to waste chances.
If that happens—and it is a big possibility—then the game could become England’s to lose, especially with their ability on the counter-attack, the form of Ashley Young and the weak form—and mental state—of France’s defence.
I think France will just edge this match, but I would love to see and England win!