James Lawton: Stubborn England dig in to deny France at Euro 2012
Published 12/06/2012 | 08:00
England, the new, economy-pack England, won themselves a little more than shelf-life in this European Championship which had threatened so seriously to leave them on the margins of the serious business.
They may not be Spain or Germany and they are certainly not the gifted French, who for much of the time ran and crafted them dizzy here last night, but they simply cannot be tossed into the reject bin.
They have competitive character – we can give up the game when that finally disappears – and a touch of the new realism of Roy Hodgson.
It doesn't make your blood race. It doesn't persuade you to reach for a flag. But last night it stopped France as they threatened to produce not only beautiful but also killing football.
Above everything else, it was a performance of dogged belief and a clear understanding of what they could achieve.
To understand the nature of their achievement you had to wake up to the blazing sun and the sense of a heavy challenge.
It baked all day in eastern Ukraine, at 90F a good 30F higher than back in England's training headquarters in Poland, before they made the 800-mile flight here. So, of course, the French waited with the encouraging sense they were not only more skilled and more confident but also infinitely better acclimatised.
Nor did the fact they were undefeated in their last 21 games, including one against England at Wembley completed with quite a lot to spare, diminish the possibility that if the French had anything to worry about come game-time it was not a whole lot more than a serious attack of smugness.
England, of course, had one main imperative. They had to work slavishly to neutralise the touch and the bite of Franck Ribéry, Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri and also hope that the return of teenager Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain might just prove more than a gesture of defiance.
England's new and modest horizons, Hodgson seemed to be saying, were all very well, but they still needed some evidence of an ability to take the game to their opponents.
Oxlade-Chamberlain might be raw but already he had shown such willingness to do precisely that. It was not the least drama of this night when England, the new and more passive and untested England, were required to show that they could survive in the heat of a sweltering kitchen. The young Ox showed flashes of authentic aggression, received a booking and required the French to consider the possibility of an effective counter-attack.
But then this was a long way from believing that England had come up with a new way of playing that might just work. There was reason to doubt heavily the proposition soon enough. The French were at times murderously slick, Nasri was measured and dangerous and Ribéry produced moments when England's resolve was stretched to some desperate limits.
But then against that flow England did produce the single most threatening moment, when Ashley Young fed beautifully a forward run from James Milner who might have beaten goalkeeper Hugo Lloris had he produced a slightly softer first touch. The French were outraged enough by this piece of English impertinence, but there was even worse to come when Steven Gerrard disguised a free-kick from the right in the form of a mortar shell. The French defence watched mesmerised and left the coverage to the gangling Alou Diarra, who couldn't prevent Joleon Lescott from meeting it perfectly.
It was a first dream consequence in competitive football of the Hodgson dogma of change, the one that says while England cannot compete creatively with a team bred like France, they can battle and frustrate and then exploit those moments which will come if you are patient – and secure – enough.
The French, however, have another doctrine. It is to play football in almost every circumstance. This meant that the English euphoria was quickly punctured by a brilliant piece of invention from Nasri soon after his Manchester City team-mate Joe Hart had been forced into a brilliant reflex save by Diarra.
Nasri beat Hart at the near post from the edge of the box and suddenly the heat of the Ukrainian night and the French invention threatened to be overwhelming.
But then Gerrard fought with a concentrated force that has not been so conspicuous in some of his recent England performances and on one occasion his fellow harasser of the French rhythm, Scott Parker, threw himself point blank at a drive from Florent Malouda.
The pattern was, to his great credit, more or less exactly as the new England manager had imagined it. If England had come here to trade with some of the quality produced by Ribéry and a Benzema who was at times astonishingly resilient, they would have been advised to also write a suicide note. Instead they did it the way prescribed by the doctor who has spent such little time with a chronic patient.
It was the only possible treatment for a situation that towards the end became utterly straight-forward in its requirements. It was to repel some French football which rippled with an ever-increasing menace. Among the French celebrities, Yohan Cabaye is no doubt a member of the second rank but it is a status which is surely likely to see rapid enhancement – and perhaps in the next week or so of Group D action.
It might have been sharply accelerated near the end when the Newcastle player took a ball, sublimely, from his team-mate Benzema and shot acutely across goal. The Manchester United forward Welbeck, back in defensive mode, pulled off a reflex deflection with an outstretched leg.
Ribéry, Benzema, Cabaye and Nasri were all players with a classic touch, an easy mastery of some of football's more demanding skills. Against the old England, they might have enjoyed an extravagant party here tonight.
They might have eased their way to unassailable evidence that they were indeed a cut above. Instead, England chased them down and kept them honest. It was a triumph, maybe brief, perhaps much more significant, but for the new man's idea of how to invest in a little survival.
It was murderously hot work – but it produced some impressive nerve, and perhaps a way forward to the serious end of a tournament that has so often passed them by.