England vs. France: Sparks In The Dark

Images:  FRANCK FIFE/AFP/GettyImages, Lars Baron/Getty Images.

Given England’s past form in major tournaments , it would not have been unreasonable of fans to have seen Ray Clemence’s pre-match injury as a portent of doom. The goalkeeping coach snapped his achilles tendon before England’s opening Euro 2012 fixture vs. France, bringing the number of Roy Hodgson’s staff who have succumbed to injury before a ball is kicked in anger to five.

Fortunately, everyone else survived the journey from the pitch to the changing room and back, and ten minutes later, with media hype and optimism at a new and refreshing low, kicked off against a team who hadn’t tasted defeat in 21 international fixtures.

Image:  Scott Heavey/Getty Images.

Luckily, records count for jack in major tournaments. Defensively, France were laboured – Philippe Mexes in particular took roughly as long to carry out a three point turn in the penalty area as the team bus might – but England’s third choice back four had their moments too. Whether Hodgson had simply forgotten to issue his team with tactics (unlikely, given his record), or the team failed to follow them (slightly more likely, given their record) it’s hard to say, but at times the formation appeared to be something along the lines of 8-1-1.

You’d imagine that out of a flat-back eight, at least one player would have figured out that allowing Samir Nasri, Franck Ribery and Yohan Cabaye to roam unmolested around the eighteen yard box was a dumb idea, but for large parts of the game, they did.

With Rooney missing and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain largely contained, England could only dream of such penetration, until Patrice Evra fouled James Milner near the right hand touchline, and a retaken pinpoint free kick from Steven Gerrard bounced beautifully off Jolean Lescott’s forehead and into the back of the net. It was the moment that England fans had been dreaming of, and the feelings of hope over expectation we had been fighting off in the weeks building up to the tournament swelled dangerously.

Nine minutes later, England were made to pay for their laissez-faire approach to marauding midfielders by Samir Nasri, and the more familiar and comfortable feelings of misery and unrest were restored, bolstered by memories of Steven Gerrard’s inexplicable back pass that led to France scoring a late winner from a penalty in Euro 2004. That one even made Zinedine Zidane feel sick.

But England didn’t lose. They sit second in the Group D table, two points behind hosts Ukraine whose veteran striker, Andriy Shevchenko, stunned Sweden with two magnificent headers in the other match. Sweden will be hungry for points on Friday, but if England can contain the mercurial attacking threat that is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, they can take that game with a sneaky goal or two.

Eight men at the back should be just about capable of doing that.

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