James Lawton: Hard graft the key if England are to bloom against France in City of Roses

Gerrard is under more pressure than at any point since his erratic World Cup leadership

Donetsk

Though it hangs on to the grit-smeared old title of city of a million roses, a bit like the Rhondda Valley claiming to be Tuscany West, this is a place which like few others on earth has always insisted on the hardest work – whether you were part of a slave labour force or just someone battling to survive in the mines or the steel plant.

Relatively speaking, the plight of Roy Hodgson's recast England may not be quite so severe tonight but there is still the most compelling case for them to look around and absorb the vibe.

Whatever they do they are unlikely to get their hands on too many roses but the main task is, of course, avoiding too many regrets.

They have to fight Laurent Blanc's revived France of much greater creative capacity, and one filled with a sense of renewal rather than the English one that they have found their football equivalent of ground zero, in the knowledge that in their last major tournament they did not merely perform poorly.

They turned the stomach of much of the sporting nation two years ago in the World Cup.

They did it with football that was not only unfit for purpose but riddled with ill-founded ego and appalling lack of focus.

Their manager, Fabio Capello, who many insisted made his own contribution to the disaster, said he didn't recognise his team. It was something any self-respecting football nation might have said.

The French had a scandal of their own, of course, and in some ways it went deeper with the arrival of anarchy in the dressing room and out on the training field. There was, however, a difference. The French reacted. They fired their eccentric, even loathed coach, Raymond Domenech, and installed a national hero who had, as it happened, done some impressive work with Bordeaux.

England, by the lamest comparison, preserved their uneasy relationship with Capello, provoked his resignation shortly before the onset of the tournament he had qualified for with some comfort before Wayne Rooney's brain storm in the last game against Montenegro, then gave Hodgson his poisoned chalice with just slightly more time to spare than it would take to plan a family holiday.

This was from an allegedly front rank football nation which won its one and only major tournament 46 years ago, since which time France have won one World Cup, two European titles and appeared in another World Cup final.

France was exasperated and enraged by the South African denouement. Twenty three players were given a gravely symbolic suspension. Two years on, England still wrestle with the John Terry problem that so bedevilled them in the World Cup.

So yes, England have to fight tonight not for glory but something that might just smack of a bit of redemption, a little regained pride.

Hodgson, no doubt correctly, has already tacitly accepted the accumulated failures of English organisation and vision since that sole and distant triumph in 1966. He has said, in so many words, that England cannot live here with the force and imagination of teams like Spain and Germany, and, who knows, a Netherlands coming back from the dead and a Russia buoyed by their brilliant young prospect Alan Dzagoev and the hope that they can produce something more substantial than their early, beguiling running in Euro 2008.

England, says Hodgson, must live off scraps. They must abandon the idea that they can stand toe to toe with opponents of tonight's quality, which was evident enough in the first days of Blanc's appointment when France scored a psychologically important victory at Wembley.

France outplayed England for most of the game but the French media were not exactly overwhelmed. "It was nice to see France playing together at the same time on the same field, but remember this was England who drew their last game 0-0 at home to Montenegro," sniffed one Paris newspaper.

Hodgson, after his solid but scarcely inspiring wins over Norway and Belgium, must engage that kind of disdain here tonight, though he might have allowed himself a small smile over the fact that among those predicting an easy French victory is the discredited Domenech, who once hinted that a player's star sign might be a valuable aid to his selection.

If Hodgson looks to the stars here it will have to be those twinkling in the Ukrainian sky because the kind that used to glitter – at least in their own minds – in the old days of the "golden generation" celebrity club he has already declared are part of the past.

It is something that plainly had to be said and done and what we have now is a resolve to live in the real world – one in which England cannot expect seriously to compete creatively with a French team that will come at them with an altogether superior attacking force.

Franck Ribéry, Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri make a combination of speed, finishing flair and the ability to play a killing final ball quite beyond England's resources.

There is also the potential of Hatem Ben Arfa to continue his late run into contention and the superior touch of his Newcastle team-mate Yohan Cabaye. These are possibilities to make the blood race while England, necessarily, stir up their sinew.

Also required is the captain's performance of his life from Steven Gerrard. Even at this late hour, he remains the great enigma of the English game – a player of extraordinary power and inspiration, from time to time he can also suffer terrible betrayals of judgement.

The tackle which took a Norwegian player out of the recent friendly was, say what Hodgson might, nothing less than ludicrous. Too often he lunges rather than thinks but then, of course, there are moments when he reaches an extraordinary understanding of his power to influence a match.

Tonight they simply have to come controlled but also thick and fast. He is under more pressure than at any point since his erratic and underwhelming leadership of the team in the World Cup.

Gerrard has to threaten France with his ability to make the big play and this will require him to produce the best of his judgement.

He will certainly not be wise to dwell for more than a nanosecond on the catastrophe that overtook him in the last seconds of England's last appearance against France in this tournament.

It was in England's opening game of 2004 in Lisbon, one in which a goal from Frank Lampard and the brilliance of Rooney – who won a penalty that David Beckham failed to covert – threatened to put down the still luminously gifted reigning champions.

Then Zinedine Zidane scored a superb free-kick and a penalty when Gerrard played a suicide back pass which led to David James fouling Thierry Henry.

Unfortunately there is no Lampard or Rooney tonight. They might have helped the cause of a manager espousing the new reality and a captain who says he's hell-bent on redeeming all the frustrations of a long international career. It means England have to work harder than they've ever done before.

Undoubtedly they have come to the right place at the right time. The City of Roses has never offered much reward to anyone wearing flowers in their hair.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballThe more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
News
i100
News
business
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee