FRANCE COACH LAURENT Blanc is expecting a fired-up England when the two sides meet in the Group D opener at Euro 2012 on Monday.
England, who replaced manager Fabio Capello with Roy Hodgson in May, enter a major tournament without the weight of expectation that normally surrounds them.
But having made the semi-finals of a major tournament just once since 1968 – when they lost to Germany on penalties in the last four at Euro 1996 – it is easy to see why England are not among the favourites to win the tournament in Poland and Ukraine.
On the other hand, an unbeaten run of 21 matches has Blanc’s side – littered with top talent like Franck Ribery, Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema – predicted to be one of the teams who can challenge Spain for the title.
“England will give everything because, when there are French against English, it raises the game above the normal international match,” Blanc said.
“We are going to have to be extremely strong physically. That is going to be a difficult match. But we don’t fear them more than other teams.”
The last time the two sides met at the European Championships, in 2004, France defeated England 2-1 in the group stages thanks to Zinedine Zidane, who scored a superb free-kick and a penalty in injury time.
Of more recent times, France’s winning streak has included friendly victories against Brazil, Germany and England.
They beat Monday’s opponents 2-1 at Wembley in November 2010, with Benzema and Mathieu Valbuena getting on the scoresheet.
In France’s last four matches, they have scored 11 goals and Blanc is pleased with his side’s form going forward, but wants them to rediscover their form down back if they are to stand a chance of winning the tournament.
“Fundamentally we always knew that we had a quality attack,” he said. ”In the last three games Franck Ribery has rediscovered his club form at this level. With Karim Benzema, who has carried on his excellent form for Real Madrid, that makes two hugely talented players.
“In qualifying we relied on a good defence, I hope that we can rediscover this level of performance in defence.”
England head into the tournament on the back of successive 1-0 friendly wins over Norway and Belgium, and Hodgson appears to have made defence his number one priority.
Expect England to play a counter-attacking game and without the suspended Wayne Rooney, Manchester United forward Danny Welbeck will lead the line up front with club team-mate Ashley Young just behind him.
With midfielders Frank Lampard (thigh) and Gareth Barry (stomach) sidelined for the tournament, Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker will play protective roles in front of the back four.
France are likely to be without midfielder Yann M’Vila (ankle) but Alou Diarra (knee) could feature.
As ever, the first match of a major tournament is always vital, no matter who the opponents are. But with the rivalry between England and France always strong, tonight’s match in Donetsk takes on extra significance.