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Underachieving giants France and England battled hard to earn a 1-1 draw in their Euro 2012 Group D opener. Both the sides would be happy with the result, with relatively easier games against Ukraine and Sweden to follow. The Three Lions put in a stellar performance in defence with Joleon Lescott doing well alongside John Terry, the former capping off a good performance with the first goal of the match. England though looked quite clueless in attack and were under the cosh for large periods of the contest. Samir Nasri levelled the match late in the first half, and though France rarely got behind the England backline (which was quite deep), they did have plenty of pot shots at Joe Hart's goal, the Manchester City stopper proving up to the challenge. Games against easier opponents would be England's real test, and it will be interesting to see how they change the way they approach matches where they are expected to win.
France on the other hand would be slightly disappointed at not having grabbed all three points from a game they dominated for large periods, but showed enough ability to suggest they would have no trouble sailing through what should be a rather straight forward group.
France, unbeaten in 21 matches in the run up to the Euros, took on an England side missing superstars galore in the Group D opener in Donetsk this evening. While all the news was about the mssing men in the England camp, France had an injury worry of their own with highly rated defensive midfielder Yann M'Vila missing out due to the ankle injury he sustained in the pre-tournament friendlies.
The big news in the England camp was the selection of young Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the left wing position ahead of his Arsenal teammate Theo Walcott, an interesting choice considering the lack of experience of the youngster, and the more than decent season Walcott had for the Gunners. The rest of the England team line-up pretty much as expected with Manchester United youngster Danny Welbeck the lone striker with Ashley Young and James Milner up in support. Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker sat in front of the back four, which consisted of John Terry and Joleon Lescott in the middle with Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson guarding the wings. Joe Hart was the custodian in goal.
France lined up in an expected 4-5-1 formation with Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema being the lone man up top. The ever dangerous Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri were deployed on the wings, with Yohan Cabaye, Alou Diarra and Florent Malouda playing through the centre. Rami and MexÃ¨s formed the dependable centre-back pairing, with Debuchy and Evra available to burst down the flanks. Hugo Lloris started between the sticks for the French.
Both the teams started off cautiously, trying to keep the ball and build from the back. Individual mistakes rather than brilliance came to the fore in the first quarter of an hour with Rami being disposed by the young Oxlade-Chamberlain far up the pitch, causing jitters in the French camp. However, his pass to Welbeck was well intercepted.
England keeper Joe Hart displayed the nerves associated with being an England goalkeeper, and spilled a corner in the 11th minute. Much to his relief, it fell to an England boot which blasted it clear. The first major chance of the game fell to England who carved open the French defence in the 15th minute.Â·A brilliant through ball from Young saw Milner waltz past the French defence. He rounded the keeper, but could not find the back of an unguarded net from a tight angle with his weaker foot. A gilt-edged chance which more often than not would have been taken.
France were not to be kept quiet and Cabaye tried a shot, which perhaps lacked a little pace, from the edge of the area which was well saved in the bottom corner by Hart.
The breakthrough this game so desperately needed came on the half hour mark. Evra steam-rolled into James Milner to give away a soft free kick on the right wing. Steven Gerrard produced a brilliant curling free kick which found the head of an unmarked Lescott, who gladly accepted the opportunity by planting the ball into the back of the net.
Les Blues controlled possession after the goal and almost hit back with a free kick of their own. Diarra's powerful header from Nasri's delivery from an identical position produced a brilliant instinctive save from Hart. The follow up also ending on the wrong side of the post. However, England's delight was short lived as France equalised soon after.
France had pushed back the England defensive line after waves of attack. A good, patient build-up saw Nasri find some space on the edge of the area, and the Manchester City player hit a thunderous shot past his club teammate Hart at his near-post to pull France level. It was all France after Englandâ€™s opener, and the half time break came at the right time for the Three Lions who did well to keep France at bay after the equaliser.
The early exchanges of the second half were very similar to the first as it appeared another sparring match had started. Both sides put in some crosses and a few brilliant individual runs were on display, however, neither keeper was tested due to a lack of cutting edge in the final third. The game was slowly opening up with both sides looking to take the lead. England were livid after having a couple of free kick shouts turned down.
The first save of the second half came as late as the 65th minutes, when Hart did well to hold onto a stinging shot from Benzema from a far way out. The next couple of minutes saw shots raining from the boots of the French, but they were all blocked by the White English wall of eight.
Benzema was almost put through in the 74th minute with a toe-poke from Nasri. However, last man Johnson did well to intercept. Minutes later, Ribery displayed a burst of pace to get to a ball which seemed to be going out and tested Hart at his near post.
It was all France in the closing stages with Cabayeâ€™s sweetly struck volley being deflected behind by Welbeck from a corner. It was followed soon after with a Benzema shot which seemed to be curling into the far top corner, also headed behind, this time by a dazed Steven Gerrard. England had been pushed back and France seemed likelier to land a winner. The Three Lions though almost landed a late sucker-punch when Milner put in a brilliant cross into the French penalty area with Mexes just getting in front of a line of English attackers to keep the scores level.
Karim Benzema let fly from quite some distance with what proved to be the last chance of the game. It was well saved by Hart, who has been tested with long shots all day. The game ended in a 1-1 draw, with both sides seeming content at not losing, England more so. It was a slightly disappointing contest which saw England getting a hard earned point with France seeming a far better side than the disappointing team of the last two international tournaments.
It will be interesting to see how the English fans and press react to today's performance - a point earned or a poor showing from a side looking rather undercooked for a major tournament.
England (4-4-1-1): Hart, Johnson, Terry, Lescott, Cole, Milner, Gerrard, Parker (Henderson 78'), Oxlade-Chamberlain (Defoe 77'), Young, Welbeck (Walcott 90')
Subs: Green, Walcott, Henderson, Carroll, Baines, Jones, Jagielka, Downing, Defoe, Butland.
France (4-5-1): Lloris, Debuchy, Rami, Mexes, Evra, Nasri, Cabaye (Ben Arfa 84'), Diarra, Malouda (Martin 84'), Ribery, Benzema.
Subs: Mandanda, Giroud, Matuidi, Reveillere, Menez, M'Vila, Martin, Ben Arfa, Valbuena, Clichy, Koscielny, Carrasso.
Final Score: England 1-1 France (Lescott 30',Â·Nasri 39')
File Photograph Copyright: Ryu Voelkel
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