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France 1, England 1: Defending the Draw

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lescott france england hodgson
France 1 Nasri 39'
England 1 Lescott 30'

England had never won their opener at the European Championships, and France came into the match defending a 21-game unbeaten streak. Ninety largely predictable minutes later, a one-one draw ensured both sides would extend their records by at least one more match, though with Roy Hodgson making time wasting substitutions in the final moments and goalkeeper Joe Hart coming close to seeing yellow for time wasting it was clear which side was happier with the result.

Arsenal's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlin started the match ahead of Stewart Downing on the left while James Milner manned the right flank for Hodgson's England, and it meant that only Steven Gerrard and Glen Johnson started despite snark ahead of the match from pundits and fans of other clubs over the national side being little more than Liverpool in disguise. Little more than a pre-emptive search for scapegoats, in the end it was only the two players who were always going to start no matter how many others came along who did start.

And when the referee blew for kickoff, it was immediately apparent that no matter which players might be out on the pitch, this was a side that Roy Hodgson had already stamped his authority on as a massive chasm opened between attack and defence whenever England had the ball. With Gerrard and Scott Parker dropping to link with the defenders but the forwards and wide players immediately taking off up the pitch, England's six deeper players spent most of the first half launching the ball quickly up to the attacking quartet and hoping that a moment of individual brilliance would lead to a goal.

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England's approach nearly worked, too, when Gerrard spotted Ashley Young in the gap between France's lines, helping to set up the best chance for either side in the early going when Young then slipped James Milner between France's static centre backs. The City winger, though, took a heavy touch to round Hugo Lloris and could only hit the side netting with his eventual shot.

Soon afterwards, Oxlade-Chamberlin beat two defenders, running into the space France had once again left between midfield and their deep back line. He tried to send Young in on goal, but this time Adil Rami and Philippe Mexes were more aware to the danger and stepped up to play him offside.

Despite the massive gulf between attack and defence, England's attacking quartet—and most of the time that meant Oxlade-Chamberlin and Ashley Young—had the better of a deep French defence that looked off the pace and had difficulty dealing with direct runs off one or two quick passes up the pitch. In part this highlighted the vulnerability of Frances back line—and Mexes in particular looked a liability—but it also came about because France's midfield was often slow to transition into defence, leaving their back four at the mercy of England's pacy skill players. Meanwhile, it only encouraged England to keep numbers camped back in their own half, happy to stifle any French attacks and playing a very direct counter game.

Even before England scored, it seemed a potentially winning formula stumbled onto by Roy Hodgson's side—though in large part that appeared to be down to the tactical failings of Laurent Blanc's France and the individual brilliance of Young and Oxlade-Chamberlin.

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Thirty minutes in, England's counter game gave Steven Gerrard a free kick thirty yards out from goal on the right. He sent his first effort sailing over everybody's head, but the referee ordered a re-take. On the second time of asking, the England and Liverpool skipper sent in perhaps his best free kick of the year, finding Joleon Lescott in the middle of the area. France had dominated possession, spending more than twice as much time in England's end of the pitch in the early going, but direct football and a goal off a free kick had put Roy Hodgson's side up.

After the goal, however, England sank deeper and deeper in defence, and less than ten minutes later Samir Nasri equalised with a shot into the bottom corner from outside the penalty area. England's back four had at the time withdrawn all the way back onto the edge of Joe Hart's six-yard box as France played the ball around in the final third, and with midfielders Parker and Gerrard creeping deeper to form a back six of sorts it left nobody close to Nasri when the ball came to him twenty yards out from goal. It gave the French attacker all the time he needed to line up his shot and drill it past Hart.

England had seemed effective if uninspiring in the first thirty minutes, but after going up a goal the almost immediate shift to all out defense had given France the freedom of quite nearly the entire pitch. And after two solid minutes of possession interrupted only by a punted English clearance, they were once again level. For Liverpool fans, it was a painful reminder of one of Hodgson's key failings at the club, and after the goal an England side that had crawled into its shell with an eye on nursing the one goal lead for the next sixty minutes was lucky to get to the half on terms.

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The second brought more French possession, though the break gave Hodgson the chance to push Gerrard and Parker up the pitch ten yards and allowed England to once again defend with a pair of largely passive lines of four. Meanwhile in attack, England went right back to relying on individual efforts and a French midfield that was slow to defend the counter to create their handful of opportunities.

Neither side, however, could create the breakthrough, with England's determined defending preventing the French attack from getting a clear sight of goal and England's attackers unable to find the singular moment of magic that might have put their nation ahead again. After more than thirty minutes of sparring, Jordan Henderson was brought on for an increasingly tired and ineffective Scott Parker on 77 minutes, but rather than signalling a change of approach for England it only led to more of the same.

Unsurprisingly, the best chance of the closing minutes fell to France off a corner when the ball popped out to Yohan Cabaye on the edge of the area. His driven volley was deflected by the outstretched leg of Danny Welbeck to save a point for England as they once again sank deeper and—with the exception of an 89th minute break and subsequent corner—spent almost the entirety of the final ten minutes plus stoppage time defending the draw.

In a weak group with Sweden and co-hosts Ukraine, both countries may have shown enough to at least give their supporters hope of advancing to the knock out stages. However, it was a far from inspiring match for either side, with the French looking largely toothless in the final third and with clear defensive issues while England was depressingly passive and relied almost entirely on Oxlade-Chamberlin and Young to provide any kind of a spark. With the winner and runners-up from England's Group D set to take on Group C in the quarter finals—and with that in all likelihood meaning Spain or Italy—it's also fair to say that on the strength of today's performance neither country would be considered favourites to move beyond that stage.