They began slowly but, once they had put their minds to it, France fully justified their exalted status as world champions. Their comprehensive victory laid to rest the belief, harboured by the previous England coach, that his team should have been crowned champions last summer.
If there is any consolation this morning for Howard Wilkinson, the caretaker, it is that it is no disgrace to lose to a side as good as this. He can also reflect that Sir Alf Ramsey lost his first match as England manager, also to France.
Unlike Ramsey, however, Wilkinson may only get one game but, unless an outstanding candidate emerges in the next month, he is likely to remain in charge for the European Championship qualifying tie with Poland on 27 March. This should not cause concern. His restoration of a flat back four was largely a success. England created good chances early on, worked hard for most of the game and only lost shape when injuries ravaged an already depleted side.
Two of those took the edge off an otherwise enjoyable night for the watching Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger. His young centre-forward, Nicolas Anelka scored the first goal that France have ever scored at Wembley after 68 minutes, added another after 75 minutes, and might have had a hat-trick with a shot that appeared to bounce behind the goal-line. However, two other Arsenal players were injured. Lee Dixon was taken to hospital with concussion and Martin Keown suffered a hamstring injury. Both must be doubtful for Saturday's FA Cup fifth-round tie with Sheffield United.
While Wilkinson had made seven changes from Glenn Hoddle's last match the French had made just three from the World Cup final team. Laurent Blanc, suspended that heady night in July, returned at the expense of Franck Leboeuf, and Robert Pires and Anelka came in for Stephane Guivarc'h and Christophe Dugarry. If anything the side looked stronger than in the summer. So it proved.
But not at first, as England threatened as early as the second minute, Tony Adams getting across Emmanuel Petit to meet a well-flighted free- kick from the right by David Beckham. He ought to have scored but the ball died on him a little and he put a glancing header wide. Seven minutes later Beckham and Alan Shearer combined to release Michael Owen but Fabien Barthez parried his weak shot with his shins. The French, chastened, determined to concentrate more thoroughly and the game tightened up.
The Arsenal, sorry, England defence, had operated efficiently from the start. They held a line to catch Anelka offside in the third minute, got bodies in the way whenever danger threatened, and stepped smoothly into midfield to win the ball when their opponent went deep. The combined tutelage of a Scot and a Frenchman, George Graham and Wenger, was serving England well.
France's first serious attempt on goal was thus from a free-kick, conceded by an 18th-minute foul on Anelka by Keown nearly 30 yards out, but Youri Djorkaeff's shot sailed harmlessly over. Barthez dived to push away Beckham's arrowing free-kick soon afterwards.
The Manchester United player's dead-ball expertise continued to cause problems for the French. Just after the half-hour his corner, nodded down by Shearer, ought to have prompted a goal but Keown, with a flash of his red boots, thumped the ball over the bar.
If there was a hunger about England there was a poise about the French and they gradually took control of the midfield. In the second period this became absolute and as pressure began to build, the under-protected defence began to creak.
Djorkaeff bamboozled Keown and released Anelka only for the young striker to be crowded out. Zinedine Zidane bent a shot just wide. Then, just after the hour, Anelka appeared to score. Adams was duped by a Zidane chip, Anelka stole behind him and thumped a shot against the crossbar. It seemed to bounce behind the line but the German linesman waved play on.
It was a brief respite. Five minutes later Anelka again ran on to a similar Zidane flick, a row of defenders raised their arms in vain for offside and Anelka clipped the ball past Nigel Martyn.
Wilkinson, who had just brought on Andy Cole in an attempt to add life to England's moribund attack, was now forced into another substitution as Dixon suffered a nasty injury in a clash of heads with Dugarry. His reorganisation was curious, Rio Ferdinand going to right-back rather than Keown, and France took advantage. Zidane and Dugarry sliced open England's right flank, allowing the latter to roll over a cross which Anelka touched in.
Zidane would have added a third in the closing stages but for a good save by Martyn as England ended in ragged fashion with Jason Wilcox, a left-winger, pressed into service at right-back. When it comes to considering Wilkinson's prospects, he will prefer the Football Association to remember the first half rather than the second but it was the latter, full of French artistry, that will live in the memory.
ENGLAND (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Keown, Adams (all Arsenal), Le Saux (Chelsea); Beckham (Manchester United), Ince, Redknapp (both Liverpool), Anderton (Tottenham); Shearer (Newcastle), Owen (Liverpool). Substitutes used: Martyn (Leeds Utd) for Seaman, h-t; Cole (Man Utd), for Owen, 66; Ferdinand (West Ham Utd) for Dixon, 72; Scholes (Man Utd) for Redknapp, 84; Wilcox (Blackburn) for Keown, 84.
FRANCE (4-2-3-1): Barthez (Monaco); Thuram (Parma), Desailly (Chelsea), Blanc (Marseilles), Lizarazu (Bayern Munich); Deschamps (Juventus), Petit (Arsenal); Djorkaeff (Internazionale), Zidane (Juventus), Pires (Marseilles); Anelka (Arsenal). Substitutes used: Leboeuf (Chelsea) for Blanc, h-t; Dugarry (Marseilles) for Pires, h-t; Wiltord (Bordeaux) for Djorkaeff, 83; Vieira (Arsenal) for Anelka, 84; Candela (Roma) Dechamps, 90.
Referee: H Krug (Germany).Reuse content