Group D, Donbass Arena, Donetsk,
Monday 11th June 18:00
After all the well-documented problems England have experienced with injuries going into the tournament, it is France who approach Monday’s game in Donetsk with a few selection problems whilst England have all 23 players who made it to the tournament available. Blasé Matuidi missed last Tuesday night’s rout of Estonia with a thigh injury but he was likely to be a squad player, so the ankle injury Arsenal target Yann M’Villa picked up against Serbia remains Laurent Blanc’s only real injury problem. Alliou Diarra is expected to fill in for him alongside Newcastle’s Yohann Cabaye.
A problem could arise at the back for Blanc on who he picks to partner Valencia centre-back Adil Rami. Phillipe Mexes, who has come off a bad season at AC Milan and was exposed on a couple of occasions against Estonia on Tuesday, maybe jettisoned. A potential stand-in could come in the form of Laurent Koscielny of Arsenal, but his lack of international experience may count against him.
(possible line-up ,4-2-3-1)
Johnson Lescott Terry A.Cole
Milner Young Downing
(Possible line-up, 4-2-3-1)
Debuchy Mexes Rami Evra
Ben Arfa Nasri Ribery
Roy Hodgson’s main system problem ahead of the game is whether to stick with the 4-2-3-1 that he used in the warm-up friendlies with Norway and Belgium, or play with both Danny Welbeck and Andy Carroll up front in a 4-4-2. The latter has the advantage of compensating for the obvious lack of a central-attacking midfielder following the withdrawal of Frank Lampard through injury, but it would leave the central-midfield duo of a tenacious Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard exposed against the dynamism of France’s midfield 3.
The most obvious choice would be to field Ashley Young behind Andy Carroll after the partnership impressed against Norway, but Danny Welbeck made a good case for his inclusion with a well taken goal against Belgium. The choice of the lone striker would be between the direct physicality of Carroll and the mobility of Welbeck, with the latter a more prevalent option if England are to, as expected, to adopt a counter-attacking style.
The other of Hodgson’s dilemmas would be on the flanks as the manager would have to choose the pace of Theo Walcott or the discipline of James Milner on the right, the imperious form of Franck Ribery which was in full evidence against Estonia will play a major role in his thinking, so it may be Milner’s industry and high work-rate preferred to Walcott.
On the left meanwhile, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain played well against Belgium but he is unlikely to be entrusted with a start in such an important game so Stewart Downing or Ashley Young (depending on Hodgson’s choice of front-line) will go head-to-head for the nod. Behind them, Ashley Cole will provide solid cover against whoever Blanc picks on the right (either Chelsea’s Florent Malouda or Newcastle’s Hatem Ben Arfa), but the attacking intent of Martin Debuchy from right-back will have to be managed in a defensive phase, so Stewart Downing, who likes to lie deep as a reserved winger, maybe the preferred option.
In the middle, Laurent Blanc has been positioning Yohann Cabaye further forward in the warm-up friendlies, so Scott Parker will have his hands full monitoring his threat, both from his enthusiasm to shoot from long range and his power when breaking forward, and that of Samir Nasri, who likes to drift between the lines and is difficult to pick up with his low sense of gravity.
If Hodgson goes with a 4-4-2, Steven Gerrard will be charged with bridging the gap between defence and attack, rather than just sitting in a reserved role he has slotted into this season at Liverpool, whilst Alliou Diarra will have to keep an eye on him, and Danny Welbeck’s penchant for dropping off between the lines.
A rejuvenated Karim Benzema who hit 32 goals last season for Real Madrid in La Liga will lead the French attack and he will keep a back two of John Terry and Joleon Lescott busy with his ability to drift out to the wings and drag defenders out of position. Some of the French attacking interplay against Estonia was imperious, Benzema got 2 goals, and England will have to show some of the defensive unity that was in evidence in both warm-up games. When France have the ball in attacking areas, Scott Parker will be charged with dropping off and patrolling the 18 yard box ahead of a compact back 4.
The France back four can be got at however as Iceland showed by racing into a 2-0 lead before Blanc’s side made a late comeback to win 3-2. Mathieu Debuchy often leaves his station at right-back exposed with his charges forward, whilst Patrice Evra has struggled for form at Manchester United this season and could be dropped for Gael Clichy at left-back. In the middle, the problems of Phillipe Mexes have been an issue recently and England will be looking to expose his struggles for form.
Most of France’s attacking play is likely to go through the electric winger who has netted three goals in his last three internationals, including one to cap a fine display against Estonia. Naturally stationed on the left, the 29-year-old can is equally adept at beating his man on the outside with skill or cutting in to shoot on his stronger right foot. He often drops off, luring the defender on in order to lay the ball off, then to turn and spin away into space. Glenn Johnson will have to watch the Bayern Munich man’s casual, quiet runs into the central areas, as well as his natural wide threat. Hodgson may even have to deploy two players, i.e. a more defensively disciplined winger, to contain his obvious attacking threat.
Maybe not at his scintillating best for club nor country anymore as he fights aging limbs, but still possesses the quality to be a game-changer. Will Hodgson use him as a deep-lying central midfielder like in the friendlies, or will he be pushed forward behind the striker? Gerrard’s energy and drive will be vital against a midfield as dynamic as France’s and especially the guile of Yohann Cabaye, whilst his vision will be needed for quick, intelligent passes out to the wings to relieve the midfield pressure and launch attacks. The 32 year old will be one of the more experienced members of Hodgson’s squad and as captain; he will be looked too to lead by example in the centre of the pitch.
Mathieu Debuchy/ Patrice Evra
England could have potential joy by working the ball wide to the wings quickly as Debuchy, for one, is highly liable at going forward and leaving gaps behind him. It is important, against the quick, constant attacking threat of Ashley Young, that Debuchy keeps his forward runs in check as England could find a lot of potential on the counter attack if he is drawn forward. Patrice Evra will probably start ahead of Gael Clichy on the left but is coming off 2 years of poor form at Manchester United. Positionally suspect, England may be able to find gaps in and around the left-back to take advantage of his lapses of concentration that have become thematic of his performances, if they get the ball wide quickly.
After a stop-start season for Liverpool where he has struggled for form, only scoring 6 goals, Carroll finds himself on the grandest stage, leading his country against France. It is an arguably unexpected chance, but he will be desperate to take it against what remains a suspect France defence. Blanc is expected to persist with Adil Rami and the questionable Phillipe Mexes against England and it is hugely important that Carroll displays some of the unplayable physicality that saw him conclude the season impressively and most-notably caused Chelsea so many problems when he came on in the FA Cup final. Also good with his feet, Carroll may also drift off to give Alliou Diarra problems in his uncomfortable defensive midfield position. It is vital that the 23 year old leads the line with dynamism and athleticism to occupy two positions (Mexes and Diarra) and draw France deep, leaving space for Gerrard, Young, Walcott etc. to run into around him.
Despite not having a manger as of only a month ago, England will feel quietly confident of springing a surprise against a France side who will remain favourites for the game, and perhaps the tournament, after a 21 match unbeaten run under Laurent Blanc. Roy Hodgson has installed a unity into the England squad and there have been immediate signs of a solid organisation in the two friendly wins against Norway and Belgium which ensured two clean sheets. France’s preparation has been full of attacking intent and fluid play, but there have also been questions of a vulnerable defence which may give England hope on the counter attack.
It is a direct contrast of styles, with the rigidity of England against the fluid movement of France, but if England can restrict France’s strongly-equipped forward line and contain the threat of Benzema and Ribery, then they may have a chance of creating their own chances. However, I predict it will be a tense, cagey affair with neither side wishing to give anything away in their opening game, hence why I’m predicting a draw, with both centre-forwards scoring.
Prediction: England 1 (Carroll) France 1 (Benzema)