Peter Taylor's assertion of delight with a draw notwithstanding, his England Under-21 side face a bleak mission to Nancy on Tuesday in the second leg of their European Championship play-off against France. In Friday night's first leg at a rainy White Hart Lane it was all too frequently a case of English artisans struggling to cope with French aristos, equality being achieved only three minutes from the end.
While the England manager rightly praised the effort and commitment of his team, they were indisputably inferior to the technically gifted French, who stiffened that technique with composure and admirable maturity.
That the young Bleus, who have lost just one of their last 27 matches and turned up in London having scored 10 and conceded one in their previous four games, will constitute a formidable barrier to England's hopes of progress to next summer's eight-nation finals was acknowledged by Taylor. But he went on to insist: "I think we can get an away win."
Perhaps they can, with regular doses of the stuff which produced that late equaliser: long ball out to the left, low cross to the near post and Dean Ashton's scuffed shot from a poor clearance slid in by a delighted Darren Ambrose. By no means crash, bang, wallop, but an example of what Taylor sees as a method of unhinging the French on their own turf.
England must score in Nancy, a task they will consider within their reach against a French back line which looked porous at the centre against the pace and accurate shooting of Darren Bent and the impressive control and supply skills of Carlton Cole. These two, making only their second start together for the Under-21s, were bolstered by the late introduction of Ashton's height and muscle. Not, however, that England will be able to luxuriate in three strikers on Tuesday evening.
Bent should have equalised the 47th-minute goal by Anthony Le Tallec on the hour; his header past Jeremy Gavanon was rolling at a comfortable pace for the net when it was scooped off the line by Ronald Zubar in an incredible act of athletic heroism which turned premature celebration into groans of disbelief from the crowd of 34,574, an Under-21 record. Then Tom Huddleston, the 18-year-old Tottenham midfielder on loan at Wolverhampton, saw his header from a corner kicked off the line by Jeremy Berthod, a further example of the desperate measures needed to counter England's strength at set-pieces. Yet the fact that Berthod, who recently played for Lyon against Real Madrid in the Champions' League, did not get on to the pitch until the second half as replacement for Arsenal's relentlessly booed left- back Gaël Clichy was indication of the French talent in depth.
Nor did England have anyone remotely of the ability of France's left-sided wonder man, Franck Ribery, who offered a master- class in close control at top speed. In the absence through injury of Nigel Reo-Coker and Gary O'Neil, the England midfield was guilty of giving the ball away too readily and too frequently. Kieran Richardson was particularly guilty in this respect.
Taylor's relief was evident in his comment that "defeat would have been a nightmare result for us". But his praise for the industry which managed to carve out the draw was tempered by the criticism that "I know we can do 10 times better".
He added: "The character and attitude of the players was excellent because we kept going and created chances. But the French were a lot better than us in the first half. I didn't like us at all, really, in the first half. All night too many people had too many touches.
"Once we started our quick, simple play, I knew we would cause them problems. On Tuesday, we have to go out and play as a team. We have to pass the ball quickly, moving and making angles. If we do that, we can easily get an away win."
Taylor's half-time comment, revealed by Ambrose, that in his opinion England had gone through the 45 minutes without playing was a bit unfair on the quality of the French in that opening half. Perhaps the return on Tuesday of Portsmouth's O'Neil will add the bite and confidence needed to challenge more effect-ively in the middle of the park.
England, whose bravery was epitomised by the rugged excellence of skipper-for-the-night Michael Dawson on his home ground, will take heart from Taylor's comment that "all of us know we can do a lot better in the second leg". If that happens, perhaps the imposing walls of the French castle can be breached and a famous victory celebrated.Reuse content