France midfielder Franck Ribéry forced into cul-de-sacs by drilled England midfield
Fears England would be carved open by slick interplay proved wide of the mark
The Donbass Arena
Tuesday 12 June 2012
A rapidly developing tournament trend claimed another victim last night when defensive doggedness countered possession play as France's attacking triumvirate failed to prise open England.
Just as Holland faltered against Denmark, and Spain could only extract a draw from Italy, Les Bleus found Roy Hodgson's well-organised side too great an obstacle to overcome on a humid night in Donetsk.
Perhaps memories of past failures continue to sap their self-belief in tight moments. But then England have also had plenty of healing to do after their wounds in South Africa.
This was ostensibly a clash between the two worst teams at the last World Cup, certainly in respect of the chasm between expectation and performance. France have since reunited and reformed. A 21-game unbeaten run strongly suggested Laurent Blanc's insistence on a more attractive style was reaping dividends but little could be conclusively determined until tournament football arrived.
On the balance of play, they edged the contest but fears England would be carved open by slick interplay proved largely wide of the mark. Most of France's efforts were from distance in a pattern epitomised by Samir Nasri's 20-yard equaliser that restored parity and considerable pride.
For the most part, despite controlling possession, England's two resolute banks of four made this a frustrating evening for Nasri, Franck Ribéry and Karim Benzema – the fearful trio capable of ripping teams to shreds found themselves in a cul-de-sac Barcelona and then Bayern Munich occupied against Chelsea.
France's issue was chiefly that Nasri and, to a lesser extent, Ribéry prefer to drift infield and hurt teams in a central position. This played into Hodgson's hands as a well-drilled midfield compressed the space and shut down any avenues through John Terry and Joleon Lescott at the heart of defence.
Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole were narrow and consequently France had to move the ball fast and incisively to open up their opponents. Although it is harder to maintain focus and energy levels without the ball, the need for France to up the tempo to dislodge a rigid system meant the heat played into England's hands.
The game was played at walking pace at times, particularly in the second half as France wilted in their efforts to take the game to England.
Full-backs Patrice Evra and, in particular, Mathieu Debuchy pushed to provide the consequential width but neither produced consistent delivery when they were able to navigate their way around Johnson and Cole.
That said, England had threats to deal with. Nasri always looked the most likely in the first half and Cole had to foul the Manchester City midfielder as France looked to assert their authority.
This match had been billed as a clash of football philosophies with French flair facing off against English functionality, and if it was a surprise England took the lead, Lescott emphatically scoring from a set-piece conformed to the stereotype.
Only a nominal increase in tempo saw England breached. France worked the ball with purpose and as England sat deeper, Nasri found space to beat Joe Hart with a more accurate effort than his early sighter. After the break, France probed with less conviction and England threatened to cause an upset. Benzema went close twice but a draw was reward for France's possession and England's graft. Les Bleus deserved nothing more.
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