Forget the doom and gloom… France aren't that good
21:30 GMT, 3 June 2012
It was September 3, 2010, when France last lost a game. Substitute Sergei Kislyak scored for Belarus in the first match of the current European Championship campaign.
There were four minutes to go in the Stade de France and Laurent Blanc’s team were booed off. It has been quite a revival since then.
On Tuesday, France will play their final match before departing for Donetsk. Avoid defeat by Estonia, as is widely anticipated, and they will face England next week on the back of 21 games unbeaten. Of the 20 played in this streak so far, 14 have been won.
Warming up: France train ahead of their Euro 2012 campaign in Ukraine
‘When you’ve gone 20 games unbeaten you’ve obviously got something,’ said England manager Roy Hodgson. ‘That’s a lot of matches with players believing in each other, so the team takes care of itself. We can’t suggest we are in that position.’
Nobody is. Indeed, many are suggesting that England are so spectacularly inferior to France that the meeting in the Donbass Arena a week on Monday is merely the first of three reddening slaps in the face Hodgson’s side will receive at Euro 2012, before scuttling home.
‘Whether we can beat them, I don’t know,’ Hodgson added, sounding every inch the former manager of West Bromwich Albion.
Yet England versus France is not West Brom versus Manchester United, and rarely has been.
The advantage has been with France in recent years but never by much. Of the last seven encounters, dating back to June 1992, all but one have been settled by the odd goal or drawn.
Main man: Laurent Blanc has turned France's fortunes around
England are one of the teams defeated in Blanc’s run of 20 but the final score on November 17, 2010, was 2-1 and England’s starting line-up that night included Kieran Gibbs and Jordan Henderson, while Jay Bothroyd came on as a substitute. Fabio Capello had, at most, four first-team starters available.
So all is not lost. Despite the latest setback for England with Gary Cahill joining Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry on the list of the significant fallen, there is not as much between the teams as first impressions suggest.
On the back of another 9/10 result inspired by a 6/10 performance it is possible to look at Monday, June 11 as a fateful day of reckoning for the new manager. And, yes, France are good but not that good. And, yes, they have a better recent record than England but not by so much.
Since departing the 2010 World Cup in similar states of disarray, France and England have lost the same number of matches — two.
Indeed, until the Football Association chose to go into a game against Holland with a caretaker boss in Stuart Pearce, England’s revival had been markedly similar.
Momentum: France beat Serbia in their latest friendly ahead of Euro 2012
Post South Africa, France’s record reads: Played 22 Won 14 Drawn 6 Lost 2 Goals For 33 Goals Against 12. England’s record is: Played 17 Won 11 Drawn 4 Lost 2 Goals For 29 Goals Against 13.
France have the edge but there really isn’t such a divide. Certainly not a gulf worthy of the depression that still envelops English football now the business end of the international season approaches.
Patrice Evra identified the biggest problem for England: the absence of Wayne Rooney (and his lukewarm performance against Belgium as a second-half substitute hardly inspired confidence for his much vaunted return in the final group game against Ukraine, 37 days after he last started a match). Looking at Saturday’s performance, England cannot afford to lose one of the few players who, having worked hard to get the ball, is not in an urgent hurry to relinquish it to the nearest opponent.
Asked to single out an individual performer for England on Saturday, Belgium interim coach Marc Wilmots picked Ashley Young.
‘Tres rapide, tres, tres rapide,’ he purred, with no translation required. So how many passes did this stellar performer in the England ranks make in his 67 minutes on the field Seven.
Tough to beat: France are undefeated in their last 20 matches
And how many for his opposite number, Eden Hazard 71. Even allowing for Hazard’s additional 23 minutes of play, that is some discrepancy.
Of course, fresh from Chelsea’s triumph against the odds in Europe, the English are getting very cocky about the national propensity for reducing the normal barometers of success in football to gibberish.
Young may have made just seven passes, but one of those set up the only goal of the game. Ha ha! Suck on that Opta. Prozone bods, your boys took one hell of a beating.
Yet, good fortune runs out eventually. If Chelsea had played Bayern Munich over 10 matches, the superior possession of the Germans would have told eventually. So, too, Chelsea and Barcelona. England cannot hope to go through the tournament making one 10th of the passes of the opposition’s most creative player without getting hurt eventually.
As France are presumed the best team in Group D, that blow is expected to come sooner rather than later. Hodgson will need all of his skills as a coach and organiser to rise to the challenge posed by France.
‘I’ve got a team in my head that can do well against them,’ said Hodgson (left). ‘I am happier that we are moving towards giving them a good game and with a little bit of luck on our side, who knows, perhaps win it. But I’m not suggesting we’ll do that, or even go into the game as favourites, looking at what France have done compared to us.’
Previous: Karim Benzema helped France beat England at Wembley
The most unsettling aspect of England’s recent performance, however, is Hodgson’s insistence that dogged resistance is not his aim. He bristles at the suggestion he is intent on making England hard to beat and little more.
‘You’re suggesting I’ve gone in with some major principle, got the players around and said, ‘‘Right, lads, we’re going to be hard to beat’’,’ he told one questioner.
‘That’s not the case at all.
‘When we talk to the players about what we want, we talk about all aspects of the game, attack and defence. Of course, we do have good, experienced defenders and maybe that’s what is shining through.
‘James Milner and Steven Gerrard have worked very hard to get into good defensive positions these last two games but there is lots of work for us to do. There are good signs in the shape of the team defensively, but work required offensively.
‘We’ve got quick players but we’re not getting into those attacking areas as much as we would like.’
Send off: England beat Belgium at Wembley in their final friendly
He has one week to change this, which is a comical timescale in the circumstances, and if he has really sought to attack in his matches so far, the workload is tremendous.
The sole consolation, however, is that he does not start from such a position of extreme disadvantage.
Since the last tournament, much about the national team has changed. Capello learned from his mistakes in South Africa and the deficiencies in his squad.
It would have helped Hodgson if one of the Italian’s proteges, Jack Wilshere, had not missed the season, helped him even more had Rooney kept his head against Montenegro but there will not be a coach at the tournament who does not have at least one regret.
As Hodgson surveys what is left of his best-laid plan, if he requires cheering up, he should think of Chile, Romania, Bosnia- Herzegovina, Belgium, Croatia and Belarus — the six nations that battled France to a draw in their last 20 games.
If England can get to the 86th minute level, the lions’ share of the job will be done. Points shared would be a very useful start indeed but from that moment, anything can happen — as Sergei Kislyak will testify.