England manager Roy Hodgson declared last night that his side could not have been more prepared for tonight's opening European Championship match with France, despite his mere 40 days in charge, and said his own belief in the players has surprised him.
Hodgson, who is likely to set the pace of Manchester United's Danny Welbeck against a French central defence which is not mobile, called on his players to put behind them the negativity of a build-up in which this England squad have been portrayed as the weakest in generations.
"It's been 40 days," Hodgson said. "But I'm really quite surprised that I'm as confident of what the players are going to show you and show the nation and do for the nation as I can possibly be, and I can't say more than that. To the players my message is going to be that 'We've done the best preparation in my opinion that we can possibly do, I think you're ready, I think you're good enough, now have the confidence and the belief in yourself to get out there and show it and don't get suicidal if for some reason things don't work out for you'.
"I think we are as well prepared basically as we can be and I am not convinced that if I had had more time we'd have been better prepared."
England's players, who were told the starting XI last night after watching a fifth DVD of the French side, will play in early-evening temperatures here which are expected to approach 32C and will also be equipped with anti-repellent sprays to deal with the midges which are another part of the climate in a city where Laurent Blanc's side have been acclimatising for five days. They will be encouraged to spray their hair and skin to stave off bites. "We'll deal with the heat as best we can," Hodgson said. "It does get hot in England from time to time. The heat is a factor for all the teams playing in the Ukraine. It plays a bigger role in the earlier game, but the bottom line is that it's the same for both teams. It's important we don't put too much emphasis on conditions. We have to look at our play and how well we can play."
The manager, who can call on John Terry and Ashley Cole despite fitness concerns, said that Terry wanted to demonstrate his own value, after the controversy surrounding his selection while Rio Ferdinand was left out. "We all know John's qualities, we all know what a centre-half he is," he said. "We all know what a warrior he is also. And we also know he is a player capable of taking other players with him. I'm just hoping John Terry will show in this tournament all the qualities I have seen him show over many years with England. I'm very convinced that he is very determined to show these qualities. I think he feels himself this is a great opportunity to show the very best of what he can do."
Hodgson will set up a defensive side in the Donbass Arena, where all but 724 of the 49,400 tickets for the Group D game had been sold by last night. Stewart Downing and James Milner will be on the flanks because Hodgson likes their ability to track back. The manager's offensive hopes are staked on England quickly countering when they seize back possession. "[It is important] how quickly we try and punish them when we win the ball back, how quickly we exploit the spaces," Hodgson said. "From time to time, when we accept it might be better not to try and exploit that space so quickly but keep the ball and give people the chance to get their breath back to then concert a mounted effort."
The message from Hodgson was that England must not panic if they lose. "There's been lots of occasions and examples in the past of teams that have lost the first game and win the tournament, like Holland in 1988," Hodgson said. Though a draw would satisfy Hodgson, he said his players wanted only victory.