DONETSK, Ukraine – Hope. It’s often a bad thing for England fans. Expecting the results to come, they’re ultimately tormented.
Well, the English faithful, the few who made the trip to Ukraine and the masses watching back home, couldn’t help but be lifted after England battled commendably against France at the Donbass Arena in a baking Donetsk. This time England punched above its weight.
The fans will be cautious. One game doesn’t make England a European champion, and the Three Lions didn’t even beat France as the match ended 1-1. Yet it was plenty more than what neutrals, if not those long-suffering fans, had anticipated. After all, the rejuvenated French came into Donetsk riding a 21-match unbeaten streak, and England was missing Wayne Rooney and three other regulars.
What England got was a steady performance from the makeshift central defensive pairing of John Terry and Joleon Lescott. Terry, like him or not, usually is steady and a warrior. Lescott, as a bonus, scored the opening goal. Equally as good was the holding midfield pair of Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker.
So England didn’t create much. Hey, you can’t have everything. Some will complain that the football wasn't attractive. Fair enough, but it was efficient and effective.
All in all a good night, then, for England manager Roy Hodgson against a big team at a major tournament, which doesn’t happen often, even if the always controversial Patrice Evra took a swipe at England by saying it played like Chelsea.
“I’m obviously pleased for the players,” Hodgson, thrust quickly into the England job in May, said in a news conference. “I thought we started well. We suffered a good French spell just before halftime, and unfortunately they kept the ball well in our half for a period of time. I’m pleased this game is out of the way, and I’m looking forward to the next one.”
For someone known as being methodical and not really a risk taker, Hodgson bucked the trend by starting Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, making him the second-youngest England player at a Euro behind Rooney. While the Ox was shackled for much of the game and showed his age in making a few ill-timed tackles, he continued to demonstrate that he’s one for the future. Perhaps, as he has proved in his time with Arsenal – recall the second leg against AC Milan in the Champions League – his best position is in central midfield. On Monday, that would have been too much pressure to put on his young, broad shoulders.
Hodgson said Oxlade-Chamberlain deserved the chance to start after his outing against Belgium in a pretournament friendly and the way he has settled into the squad.
“I just said to him before the game, ‘It’s a big occasion, but there will be more to come. Don’t hang your head or get hung up on this performance,’” Hodgson said. “Just remember there will be a lot more games in an English shirt because he has that ability.”
French manager Laurent Blanc said he was satisfied with the point. As he has done in the build-up, he took pressure off his squad by suggesting the English were the best team in the group, according to the FIFA rankings.
Based on the way England played to start the affair, he added, Les Bleus were in danger of losing.
Lescott’s headed goal in the 30th minute, which came from a peach of a free kick from Gerrard, could be put down to mistakes by keeper Hugo Lloris, who dithered, and Alou Diarra, who lost Lescott. But the French didn’t sag, as an inexperienced team at the international level might have.
“I don’t think we were dominated by England,” Blanc said. “They did create some chances, and we didn’t start as we wanted to. The first 20 minutes, it took us a while to get into it. We hope it doesn’t happen again. I hope in the next few games we get into it from the outset.”
Diarra made up for his error by bulldozing through players in the midfield, and Samir Nasri, inconsistent in both a French and Manchester City shirt, shone. His near-post effort left City teammate Joe Hart with little chance. He had to be sharp, since Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema weren’t as good as they have been in France’s recent friendlies.
Nasri walked into the news conference to receive his man of the match award with a bandage covering what appeared to be an ice pack on his right knee. It was nothing serious, he said. There were claims that Nasri told someone on the English bench, or maybe more than one member, to essentially keep quiet after his goal. Nothing unusual given the time he spends in England.
Like his manager, Nasri wasn’t displeased with the draw.
“It’s our goal to be in the quarterfinals,” Nasri said, sticking to Blanc’s propensity to keep expectations modest. “We didn’t lose, which is important for the first game.”
For England, the result had to feel like three points. The folks back home will be in festive mood – until England’s next game against Sweden on Friday.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.