The traveling circus that is England rolls into Donetsk to face France in its first game at Euro 2012. But unlike their past four major tournaments, not much is expected from the Three Lions. Manager Roy Hodgson wasn’t the fans’ first choice to succeed Fabio Capello, and he only had a few weeks to get his team prepared. Injuries to Gary Cahill, Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard, as well as the exclusion of Rio Ferdinand, have made Hodgon’s task even trickier. He was already up against it, thanks to Wayne Rooney’s two-game ban to start the group stage.
The French, meanwhile, are on an upward curve under head coach Laurent Blanc. He commands respect in the dressing room given his fine career as a player, so there won’t be a repeat of the shambles at the 2010 World Cup, when Patrice Evra led a mutiny against Raymond Domenech. Les Bleus are unbeaten in 21 games. It’s little surprise, then, that they’re being tipped as dark horses.
What's on the line?
Plenty. While Hodgson won’t get the ax no matter what happens in Poland and Ukraine, that won’t prevent the English scribes from vilifying England if it puts in a shoddy display. A loss for the Three Lions would mean their chances of reaching the quarterfinals (that must be the goal) would greatly diminish, as Sweden should handle Ukraine in the other Group D game on Match Day 1.
The French desperately need a good start in the tournament. That didn’t happen in South Africa or at Euro 2008, and they checked out in the group stage at both tournaments. An early goal for England and the doubts would creep back in. An emphatic victory, however, and the French could be on their way to the semifinals, at least.
Style and tactics:
England will play with one striker, either Danny Welbeck or Andy Carroll. Carroll is the classic target man, an option when England wants to hoof the ball forward. Welbeck is the more slippery in his ability to get behind defenses. One thing you can bet on: Hodgson’s team will be organized, disciplined and far from reckless. You play with what you’ve got, essentially, which is one of Hodgson’s specialties.
Blanc will use a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation. His side is filled with flair players, and getting the ball to the wingers will be a priority. Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema are the key men going forward, of course, with the likes of Alou Diarra -- over a knee injury -- and Yohan Cabaye starting the transition from defense to offense.
Players to watch:
For France: Karim Benzema, Franck Ribery, Philippe Mexes
Ribery is beginning to win over the French faithful after being involved in a prostitution scandal and playing a significant role in the brouhaha in South Africa. Having recently ended a three-year scoring drought for France, all of a sudden he can’t stop finding the back of the net. His link-up play with Benzema has been outstanding. On the other hand, there’s a feeling that Mexes is a weak link in the center of defense. Another option is Laurent Koscielny, who sees England’s players week in, week out in the Premier League, but Blanc won’t tinker at this point.
For England: Ashley Young, Steven Gerrard, Joe Hart
In the absence of Rooney, Young is undeniably England’s main offensive threat. If France can contain the Manchester United winger, England will have a tough time scoring. (Watch out for his dives.) At 32, this could be Stevie G’s farewell at a big tournament. Does he still have the legs to compete with younger foes? A problem area in the past, England now has a pair of safe hands for years to come in Joe Hart.
What can we expect?
The French will grab the lion’s share of possession in midfield as keeping the ball isn’t England’s strength. Creativity is also an issue for a Rooney-less England, as Norway manager Egil Olsen said following England’s unconvincing 1-0 win against the Scandinavians in May. France will do the probing, and England won’t be disappointed in trying to hit France on the counter.
Hmm. Will France have home-field advantage? It was one of the few teams to set up camp in Ukraine, and even better as it relates to Monday, it chose Donetsk. The French have thus trained in the steamy conditions in Donetsk, which might be a factor. Monday’s high, according to some forecasts, could hit 93 degrees, so even with a 7 p.m. local time kickoff, it’ll be hot. Hodgson downplayed the heat factor Sunday.
Any home-field advantage will indeed come from the surroundings, not support in the stands, since French TV reported last week that France has the fewest travelling fans in the tournament. England isn’t that far ahead.
France, 1-0. Skill, in the end, will overcome stubborn English resistance.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.