England and France launch their respective quests for major tournament redemption today in a high-stakes Group D collision that neither side can afford to lose.
England and France departed the 2010 World Cup in South Africa in disgrace after a series of abysmal performances that saw both teams making painfully early exits from the competition. Since the debacle, France have regrouped impressively, finding a greater sense of unity and cohesion under the guidance of coach Laurent Blanc. He has overseen a resurgence in French fortune since taking over, lifting them from the low of 27th in the Fifa rankings in 2010 to 14th.
France comprehensively outplayed an under-strength England in a 2-1 friendly victory at Wembley in November 2010, but Blanc has sounded a note of caution heading into the meeting.
“It’s all well and good to say they’re weakened but they’ll give everything because when the French are against the English, it raises the stakes,” said Blanc. “We’ll have to be strong. It will be difficult.”
England marred by injuries
Yet while France have enjoyed a steady resurgence since South Africa, England by contrast have spent two years lurching fitfully from one crisis to the next.
The last-minute appointment of Roy Hodgson left many to conclude that England’s Euro 2012 campaign has been holed beneath the waterline before a ball has been kicked, a feeling made more acute by a slew of injuries that have seen Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry and Gary Cahill withdraw in the past fortnight.
Throw in the suspension which means Wayne Rooney is unavailable for the opening two games and the odds of Hodgson and England enjoying a successful tournament appear even longer.
Co-hosts Ukraine meet Sweden
In the other Group D match, co-host Ukraine will tackle Sweden in the battle of the under-dogs today. Considering they are competing with giants England and France for qualification in the next stage, both know it is a must-win situation if they are to have even the slightest chance of progressing. Sweden coach Erik Hamren accepted that his side were the underdogs in the group.
“We’ve played Ukraine three times in the last few years and we’ve won one, lost one and drawn the other,” said Hamren. “There’s not much between the two sides. But they’ve got the support of the home country. That’s the reason why they’re favourites. Not many host countries lose their opening matches of the tournament.”
“England will be ready and competitive in the game. They won’t hide despite all the problems, that’s not the English culture and we are expecting a difficult test.”
“We know the quality of France’s players. Our players have come across them week in, week out. But I don’t feel that our players are cowed by the task ahead of them.”
Published in The Express Tribune, June 11th, 2012.
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