• Euro 2012

Unfancied England determined to start well

Dale Johnson
June 11, 2012
Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck could be vital for England © Getty Images

England face France in the sweltering heat of Donetsk on Monday evening with expectations at their lowest.

Despite the match having a 7pm kick-off time in the Ukraine, the temperature is still expected to be around 31 degrees Celsius and will test the players' fitness and conditioning.

England supporters are often considered to have unrealistic expectations of a team which has long failed to live up to pre-tournament billing, but there is no such brash over-confidence this time with injuries and the suspension of Wayne Rooney.

New coach Roy Hodgson in many ways cannot lose, as after his late appointment following the departure of Fabio Capello a place in the quarter-finals alone could be viewed as an achievement.

The defence would seem to pick itself with Ashley Cole, Joleon Lescott, John Terry and Glen Johnson in front of Joe Hart - a backline which played 50 minutes as a unit against Belgium in England's final warm-up game. Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker will patrol the middle of the park with James Milner and Theo Walcot out wide.

There is the chance that Hodgson could yet hand a starting place to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but his uncertain performance against the Belgians suggests he will be better as an impact substitute. Danny Welbeck has pushed himself in front of Andy Carroll for the role in front of Ashley Young.

Whereas Hodgson is likely to play a defensive style and look to hit France on the break, Laurent Blanc's side have the flair to cause plenty of problems. How England deal with their fluid play - keeping shape and not allowing Les Bleus' attack to exploit space - could decide the game.

France, unbeaten in 21 matches, had a mixed warm-up schedule, trailing 2-0 at home to Iceland before late goals earned a 3-2 win. But they improved in beating Serbia and were far more impressive in thrashing Estona 4-0 in Le Mans on Tuesday; the latter performance either acts as a pointer to their actual ability or could simply have masked the deficiencies.

Patrice Evra was particularly suspect against Iceland and although he was replaced by Gael Clichy for the Serbia game he will keep his place with Philippe Mexes and Adil Rami in the centre. Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris captains the side while Premier League target Mathieu Debuchy slots in at right-back.

With Yann M'Vila out, Alou Diarra will play a holding role while Yohan Cabaye acts in a support role. Florent Malouda, Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri are a dangerous attacking triumvirate with Karim Benzema, who scored twice against Estonia, as the lone striker.

The last time the two countries met was at Wembley in November 2010, when a youthful France side outclassed England 2-1. Benzema and Mathieu Valbuena put France in command before Peter Crouch scored a late consolation. Only 16 of the 34 players who featured in that game are at Euro 2012.

France player to watch: Franck Ribery

The Bayern Munich midfielder-cum-forward has struggled to find top gear in international football, and yet much may rest on his shoulders. His forward drives will be a feature of France's approach and if he flatters to deceive then his team may do so too.

England player to watch: Ashley Young

Just over a year ago Ashley Young had started only two matches for England but now he is one of the first names on the team-sheet. Acting as the conduit between midfield and the striker, Young has scored five goals in seven international appearances over the past 12 months, and created Welbeck's winner against Belgium. He will look to unlock the unconvincing centre-back pairing of Mexes and Rami.

Key Battle: Patrice Evra v Theo Walcott

Evra had a horrendous season at club level, as most Manchester United fans will readily testify, and he should be stretched by the Arsenal winger when England get forward. With eight Premier League goals and assists Walcott has had a productive season, but inconsistency is often his undoing.

Trivia: Geoff Hurst is the only England player to score a hat-trick against France in a full international, in a 5-0 victory at Wembley in 1969. Zinedine Zidane was sick on the pitch before taking the injury-time penalty which defeated England in 2004.

Stats: England are without a win in five against France in all competitions, losing their last three. England have met France twice before at the European Championship, drawing 0-0 in 1992 and losing 2-1 at Euro 2004.

Odds: France 2.50, the draw 3.00 and England 3.20 with bet365. The 0-0 draw is priced at 6.50.

Prediction: Though England could get a result due to Hodgson's ability to get the most out of underdogs, France should have too much in the attacking third.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.