Euro 2012: A tale of two countries as England lack French spirit
But Blanc admits Les Bleus have issues in defence
"One Prize, Two Countries, Three Lions", was the slogan on the side of the England team bus Roy Hodgson's squad boarded upon arrival in Krakow last night. Had there been space the sign-writer could have added "Four Players Out".
Hodgson's decision to call-up Liverpool's Martin Kelly to replace Chelsea's Gary Cahill, the fourth member of his original party to be injured, rather than Rio Ferdinand, means today's press conference, the first in Poland, will be dominated by the issue.
The Football Association chairman, David Bernstein, attempted to deflect the issue outside the team hotel last night. "We'd hope you would join us in that, looking forward to do the very best we can with positive thoughts looking ahead and not dwelling on... what [is] now frankly historical," he said. Good luck with that one. Distractions have been a damaging feature of past England campaigns and here is one Hodgson could do without as he tries to plan for the opening match on Monday.
The side they will meet in Donetsk's Donbass Arena – France – arrived in Ukraine yesterday remarkably free of controversy. A country which turned against its football team after the ugly players' strike at the 2010 World Cup is again supportive. The mood is mutual. France concluded their farewell friendly on Tuesday night, a comfortable 4-0 win over Estonia in Le Mans, with the players unfurling a banner they displayed to all four corners of the stadium. "MERCI! A l'Euro, avec vou, pour vous", it read ("Thank you! Off to the Euro, with you, for you").
What wouldn't Hodgson give for a sense of bonhomie like that. Injuries worries plague him right up to that date in Donetsk. John Terry managed only a lighter training session yesterday and there are persistent concerns about the hamstring he pulled against Belgium on Saturday, the feeling being that if it goes again against Laurent Blanc's side then his tournament will be over. He is being nursed through this pre-tournament period but is expected to start against the French, nonetheless.
The respective nations' moods of optimism are defined by ticket sales: 3,000 tickets to England, while France have released 40,000-plus. And with Wayne Rooney suspended for the opening two group stage games, Hodgson admitted last night that the marginalisation of English players in the Premier League left him with a lack of options. "It's been a long-term concern for me," he said. "If you look at the Premier League and at the top teams, most of the forwards are foreign players, so you don't have that sort of choice for England. If you go through the Premier League teams, you might go through four or five teams and still count the number of English players on one hand."
But while Blanc – and his nation's 21-match unbeaten run – has reconnected the team with the public, France are not without concerns. A better team than Estonia would have scored twice before France opened their account and Blanc was critical of his defence after the game.
"I'm not going to beat around the bush. Our defence was not good enough," the coach said. "It was an easy game, very easy... I said to them, 'This is not your day – the team is dominating out there and yet we're getting ourselves in trouble'. It wasn't the opposition that was causing us problems. We have to have a long hard think about what happened out there.
"The most important thing, whether you're playing up front, in midfield or in defence, is to play simple. We didn't do that in the first half and we found ourselves in trouble. They need to improve, and I'm talking about all four defenders."
While Blanc changed his front six during the second period the back four (Mathieu Debuchy, Adil Rami, Philippe Mexès and Patrice Evra) stayed in place for the 90 minutes. They were dangerously square and Danny Welbeck might exploit a lack of pace in the centre. Mexès looked particularly prone to errors and is under pressure for his place from Laurent Koscielny who came on in the second half to play a midfield holding role.
The Arsenal player's unfamiliar deployment was a consequence of France's other problem: an injury-crisis to midfield anchors. The availability for Monday of highly-rated Arsenal target Yann M'Vila is touch-and-go after he suffered an ankle strain, Paris Saint-Germain's Blaise Matuidi is also doubtful, and Alou Diarra twisted his knee in the opening minute of Tuesday's match. He played for another hour and said: "I have a little pain in my tendon, but I was reassured by the doctors. The inflammation is not too serious." Nevertheless he had an ice pack strapped to his knee afterwards.
Blanc had plenty to encourage him offensively. Franck Ribéry, linking cleverly with Karim Benzema, scored for the third successive game to suggest he has not suffered a Champions League hangover. Benzema himself scored twice, and was generally a threat as he led the line in a 4-1-4-1 formation.
Behind him Samir Nasri, Yohann Cabaye, Florent Malouda and Ribéry were a fluid quartet, the wide men drifting inside, all four slipping between the lines into those areas English teams find hard to cover. But that defence, said Patrick Vieira, a European Championship winner with France in 2000, remains a worry. "They are two teams who will fear each other," he said. "France have problems at the back after losing [Eric] Abidal and [Bacary] Sagna, while England will be without Rooney – so who is going to score the goals, who is going to supply that bit of magic for them?
"England have not beaten France, when it really matters, in a tournament, for 30 years [The 1982 World Cup, Bryan Robson scoring the first goal in a 3-1 win after 27 seconds]. There is always going to be a first time for records like that to fall, but I hope it will not happen this summer because the team who lose that game will be in big trouble. The winner will get confidence, for the loser it will be really difficult to bounce back."
Hodgson just wants that positivity He refused last night to quantify what would constitute success. "But it's important for us to enjoy the journey," he said. "I'm always disappointed at tournaments with the negativity that surrounds all the teams. I've often come away [from tournaments involving England] with the feeling that I have not enjoyed it. The feelings have been very negative and people haven't seemed to enjoy it. We've got to try to get back to putting the church back in the village.
'Like Les Bleus in 2002, Spain will flop'
Patrick Vieira played in the France team that lifted the World Cup and European Championship in succession, then flopped. He believes Spain, current world and European champions, will fail to achieve the unprecedented treble.
Having won tournaments in 1998 and 2000, France were beaten by Senegal in the opening match of the 2002 World Cup and went out in the group stage. Vieira said: "In my experience when you have won the World Cup and European Championship it's very difficult to go again. We couldn't find the motivation, the pressure, to go again. Spain have looked like that in their last few games."
Vieira fancies Germany to be the winners. He said: "They look stronger than anyone else. They understand the importance of focus, team spirit and concentration in a tournament."
France's run: How England compare
Record since 4 September 2010:
France P21; W15; D6; L0; F36; A9
England P15; W9; D4; L2; F23; A12
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