England’s opening Euro 2012 game ended in stalemate as they played out a low-key draw with France in Donetsk.
By Phil McNulty BBC Sport chief football writer at the Donbass Arena, Donetsk
Joleon Lescott gave England the lead with a header from captain Steven Gerrard’s free-kick – but France were level before the interval with a fine 20-yard finish from Lescott’s Manchester City team-mate Samir Nasri.
It was a game that dulled the early sparkle of this tournament, and was played out in searing temperatures inside the Donbass Arena by two teams who may well take satisfaction from a point from their first game.
James Milner wasted an early chance for England, while new manager Roy Hodgson was grateful to goalkeeper Joe Hart for a fine block from Alou Diarra’s header.
Hodgson made the bold choice of Arsenal teenager Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain ahead of Stewart Downing. Opportunities for him to shine were rare but he can be pleased with his efforts in strength-sapping conditions.
Karim Benzema carried France’s greatest threat after the break and a late save from Hart ensured England go into their second game against Sweden in Kiev on Friday unbeaten.
Once again England were tactically disciplined and highly organised – an early trademark under Hodgson since he succeeded Fabio Capello.
And the manager knows this was a game safely negotiated as he waits for the return of striker Wayne Rooney after he completes his suspension against Sweden.
England’s preparation for Euro 2012 were disrupted by injuries – and not even Hodgson’s backroom staff were safe as veteran coach Ray Clemence injured himself in the warm-up and had to be carried off.
The failure to cut the supply line to Nasri did not cost England when he pulled an early shot wide.
England created the best opportunity of what was some early sparring, played out in an occasionally eerie silence in this giant arena. Such was the lack of noise from the stands that players could constantly be heard shouting instructions.
Ashley Young played in Milner behind the ponderous France central defensive pair of Adil Rami and Philippe Mexes. He evaded goalkeeper Hugo Lloris but found the angle too acute and failed to hit the target.
Oxlade-Chamberlain was not seeing a great deal of possession – and he was yellow carded for a foul on the outstanding right-back Mathieu Debuchy. However, one impressive change of feet and a pass that found Young just offside hinted at his rich potential.
“England scored and the French came into the ascendancy, with England dropping deeper and deeper and they paid the ultimate price. Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard should been where Samir Nasri is for the goal, they were too deep and then could not get to him in time. Roy Hodgson will be delighted with that result though.”
England took the lead on the half-hour when captain Gerrard’s inviting free-kick was headed by past Lloris by Lescott after he escaped his marker Diarra.
It was an advantage they held for only nine minutes, paying the price for carelessness in possession.
Diarra almost made amends for his part in Lescott’s goal with a point-blank header that was blocked by Hart, before Nasri was able to take control. He was not put off by Gerrard’s attempted challenge and scored low to Hart’s right from 20 yards.
France visibly grew in confidence as the interval approached and both Hart and Ashley Cole combined to block Benzema as he closed in on the angle.
Benzema once again demonstrated his danger with a powerful drive that was saved by Hart – but this came in the middle of cagey, attritional exchanges. Glen Johnson was also forced into a timely penalty area interception as Benzema threatened once more.
Hodgson made a double change with 13 minutes left when he sent on Jermain Defoe for Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jordan Henderson for the visibly tiring Scott Parker.
England were grateful for a crucial Danny Welbeck deflection that took Yohan Cabaye’s shot wide as France continued to play with the greater momentum.
Hodgson’s side continued to show resilience to get the reward for a dogged display – and they can look forward to taking the next step in Euro 2012 against Sweden.