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16.42 – Let’s get the formalities out of the way:
France – Lloris (c), Debuchy, Rami, Mexes, Evra, Cabaye, Ribery, Nasri, Malouda, A. Diarra, Benzema.
England - Hart, G. Johnson, A. Cole, Terry, Lescott, Gerrard (c), Young, Milner, Parker, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Welbeck.
16.54 – Roy Hodgson’s first competitive fixture for England begins with an audacious selection. Arsenal youngster Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will line out on the right wing in place of Theo Walcott, while in the absence of Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck is preferred ahead of both Andy Carroll and Jermaine Defoe.
England have attempted to invigorate an underpowered squad and downbeat national mood with a little bit of creative selection, while France, by contrast, have an embarrassment of riches from which to select a starting XI. The likely contrast in styles can be summarised musically:
France, all seduction, sophistication and complex rhythms…
16.57 – Donetsk is known as the “City of a Million Roses”, apparently.
It’s anthem time.
Camera pan confirms my suspicions: Joe Hart plucks/waxes his eyebrows… and I thought it was just a continental thing.
17.03 – Those familiar with Hodgson’s work at Fulham and West Brom will expect a rigidly organised defensive performance – Trappatoni-esque in its commitment and efficiency – while France (whose form has been impressive in recent months, to say the least) will be expected to bring an expansive, possession-based brand of attacking football.
Consensus opinion has already chalked all three points up to Laurent Blanc’s men, but shorn of its most problematic and disruptive player, tactically speaking, and without the burden of insanely overinflated expectations, Hodgson’s side is free to express itself.
17.05 – We’re underway…
The early exchanges see the ball pinged back and forth across the French backline. A surprise interception sends English hearts a’flutter, but the youngster is shepherded out of play.
17.08 – After settling in possession and rhythmically working their way upfield, France threaten the English centre-half pairing of Terry and Lescott for the first time, with Nasri steering a gentle chip in the direction of Karim Benzema.
The striker is primed to take the ball to ground, but Lescott’s toe intercedes to poke the ball out of play.
17.10 – Nasri’s ball-juggling shenanigans draw a foul from Cole wide on the right wing. The resulting free-kick bounces clear through the box before ricocheting unpredictably into the arms of Hart.
17.12 – Who should we be supporting, by the way?
“People look at Manuel Neuer, they say he’s the best in the world. Some look at Joe Hart and say he’s the best in the world.”
17.15 – England look content to allow France the luxury of possession and hit them on the counterattack. Twice now, Welbeck and Chamberlain have raced the length of the pitch, only to misjudge the final pass…
17.17 – Ouch! James Milner misses an open goal! Young drifts to left to claim possession and feeds a diagonal ball through the Frech defence. Milner outpaces Mexes and Rami to meet it, round Lloris on the left and, with the goal at his mercy (albeit from an acute angle) sends an effort trickling into the side netting.
17.21 – A fabulous piece of trickery from Oxlade-Chamberlain sends the 18-year-old charging at Rami. Checking his run slightly, he slips a pass to an onrushing Young.
The Manchester United man looks clear, in space, but just as English voices build in anticipation, the referee’s whistle brings play to a halt. Offside (just).
17.24 – France are dominating the centre of the park, less by virtue of their prowess than England’s reluctance to press high up the field. Confident in their ability to withdraw slightly and defend from the edge of the box, England look thoroughly uninterested in challenge Cabaye, Nasri, et al in the open expanses of midfield.
17.27 – England have rarely looked as composed or purposeful… they’re holding formation and look, dare I say it, like enthusiastic adherents to a coherent philosophy. Gone is the push-pull moaning and reluctance of Capello’s reign.
17.28 – Word.
17.30 – Roy Hodgson, looking on from the touchline, has taken to scratching his right cheek compulsively.
17.34 – GOAL for England! France 0-1 England (Lescott)
Jolean Lescott is there to convert a Steven Gerrard delivery from the right side of midfield.
Slung low, just over the assembled heads of the French defence, his free-kick finds the head of Lescott a metre inside the far post.
An elementary conversion and no less than England deserve.
17.39 – Ooh! In an uncanny near-recreation of England’s set-piece success at the other end, France threaten Joe Hart’s goal twice from close range.
Meeting a high, looping delivery at the edge of the six-yard box, Diarra fires a bullet header directly at the City keeper. Working on reflex alone, he palms a clearance high and towards the right post, where Ribery (of all people) nudges another header back across goal. It’s there to be converted, but in the absence of a willing French body, drift out of play by the left post.
17.42 – GOAL! France 1-1 England (Nasri)
After carrying the ball wide into the left corner, Malouda turns back inside and funnels a pass to Diarra on the left edge of the box. The midfielder flips the ball to Ribery, who sends an easy lay-off back into the path of Nasri.
Unchallenged, the 24-year-old composes himself, takes a touch and drills a low effort to Hart’s right.
17.43 – Since the opening goal, England’s defence has narrowed visibly.
17.46 – That shape Hodgson had imposed on the side looks less rigid now. Those hard, immovable lines of white shirts have given way to asymetic blobs of activity – ball-watching, ahoy!
17.53 – Half-time: France 1-1 England
England looked confident and purposeful until they were rewarded with an opening goal (for Rio Ferdinand surrogate, Jolean Lescott), at which point their defensive effort lost its lustre.
Nasri’s equaliser was a stroke of mercurial genius, but well deserved in the context of his side’s growing influence.
17.56 – In the RTÉ studio, Liam Brady is criticising England for surrendering possession easily and being content to defend in numbers within their own box. But that, surely, was the point?
The fault is less with the Hodgson’s tactics – resolute counterattacking football – than the failure of nerve that lead to their being abandoned towards the close of the half.
17.59 – FACT:
18.01 – Classic John Giles (siding with Liam Brady):
“It’s well known in football, Darragh, that when you give the ball away, you have to do twice as much running to get the ball back.”
18.04 – Damocles doesn’t like the poll options:
“Your poll should include an option for “Good sportsmanship”.
“Obviously you don’t have a dog in this race unless you opt for some sort of anti-national sentiment (as your guiven options suggest), so why not watch for good football and love of the sport? Why bring hatred into it at all?”
Have I just been branded a “hater”?
18.06 – We’re back underway…
Within seconds, paragon of sportsmanship, Scott Parker, has gone to ground clutching his face. Replays reveal that Franck Ribery’s hand brushed his cheek (maybe).
18.08 – Ole James Milner, trapped in footballing freefall since his first-half howler, comes within a hair’s breadth of comic implosion when an ill-times back pass nearly sends Benzema through on goal.
18.09 – England are trying to build momentum, shuttling the ball back and forth across the back four…
Johnson is released on the right wing. Absent the presence of Evra, he launches a high, arcing cross to the back post. No one is there.
18.12 – Some nifty interplay on the edge of the French box, grants Gerrard a yard of space in which to challenge Debuchy (unsuccessfully).
Dispossessed, he collapses to the turf in search of a penalty. No dice, Stevie.
18.14 – France enjoy significant spell of possession since the interval when Lescott cedes possession to Nasri on England’s left wing.
The former Arsenal man cuts inside before squaring a pass to Benzema, who takes a stabilising touch before drilling a shot into John Terry. A satisfying act in any other context.
18.16 – Reminds me of my other half, who referred to a friend being “at some football thing in Poland” the other day:
18.20 – Rolling forward with purpose, France are brought to a halt when Franck Ribery is squished between Steven Gerrard and James Milner.
He collapses to the turf in pain – replays show his ankle folding at a wince-inducing angle – but nobody cares…
He’s soon trotting about again.
18.22 – Another Steven Gerrard dive fails to draw the referees intervention…
Seconds later, a stinging drive from Benzema – all of 25 yards out – sends Hart rolling low and to his left.
18.24 – Johnson cuts in from his right wing and, approaching edge of the box, faints left before dispatching a vicious shot where, exactly?