The first match of Group D sees perennial underachievers, England take on former World and European Champions, France in Donetsk.
France v England- Group D (Euro 2012)
Monday June 11th – 5.00pm
Newly installed coach, Roy Hodgson has the unenviable task of trying to mastermind England’s first major tournament win since the now, infamous World cup win in 1966.
After naming his squad of 23 on Wednesday, he immediately opened himself up to criticism by dropping Rio Ferdinand from the squad in favour of John Terry and including the likes of Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll despite relatively poor seasons with Liverpool.
In truth, it may well be a blessing in disguise for Hodgson as expectations are already low ahead of the group stages. It may well work to his advantage though as we know from previous tournaments how the English tend to buckle under the weighty expectations of their fans and media.
They do still have match winners in the shape of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard but doubts still linger as to whether both can be accommodated in the same team and with striking talisman, Wayne Rooney suspended for the opening two matches, England do look a blunt force going forward.
They may have to rely on Andy Carroll to get the goals for the first two group games and despite having a relatively decent last few weeks of the season, there are still huge doubts over whether the big Geordie has what it takes to do it on the international stage.
You would also have to question what sort of state the team morale is in at the minute, with rumours abound of splits in the camp over various issues, most notably, John Terry and the court case that hangs over him.
I do think Hodgson has pulled off a bit of a masterstroke in the appointment of Gary Neville though. The recently retired ex- Manchester United full back has garnered rave reviews this season as a new pundit for Sky Sports. His refreshing honesty and forthright views, not to mention his thorough, in-depth analysis has gathered a massive following of new fans and I believe his presence on the staff is exactly what the squad needs right now.
France, on the other hand, look to be in fine fettle going into these championships. In stark contrast to the disastrous reign of Raymond Domenech, new Les Bleus coach, Laurent Blanc has reinvigorated this ailing squad of players. They qualified with relative ease, playing free flowing, attacking football.
Long gone are the days of astrologists picking the starting eleven and massive in fighting undermining any sort of attempts at winning a championship. Instead, Blanc has instilled a passion for the jersey once more, with a no nonsense disciplinary policy in place in case anyone steps out of line.
Indeed the French are unbeaten in their last nine competitive internationals and the odds of them beating the English here are extremely tempting at 15/8. Especially considering the most recent records between these two nations; with France having won three of the last four meetings, with the most recent ending in a 1-0 defeat at Wembley for Fabio Capello’s former side.
Indeed, you’d have to go back as far as 1997 for England’s last victory against Les Bleu in a 1-0 victory at Le Tournoi. In fact, England have never beaten the French in a European Championship with two losses and two draw against Les Bleu.
In terms of fire power, star striker, Karim Benzema has been in ominous form for Real Madrid this season; scoring 28 goals in all competitions. He will be ably supported by the likes of Loic Remy, Franck Ribery, Hatem Ben Arfa and Ligue 1 sensation, Olivier Giroud. The Montpellier striker has been linked with a move to the Premier League, with Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger known to be an admirer.
With such explosive attacking abilities, you’d have to fancy the French to do well here and Benzema at 16/1 to be the tournament’s top goal scorer has ‘punt’ written all over it.
I feel both sides are flying slightly under the radar here. The normal English pre-tournament bluster and gusto has been replaced with a slightly more pragmatic realism. Whilst the French, after their last two disastrous campaigns; will be just glad to return to some form of normality.
In truth though, it’s really hard to look past France in this particular fixture. The vast majority of Laurent Blanc’s squad plays or has played in Premier League and that really does give them an advantage as they know what it will take to beat the English. There will be no complacency amongst the French.
When looking at the English camp, there really seems to be no reason for optimism, other than the fact that no one seems to be optimistic. They’ve just appointed a new coach, and his first job is to try and galvanise a squad of players that for a long time, have seemed more interested in their clubs than for their country.
Add in the fact that their most vital player, Wayne Rooney, misses out here and I just don’t see anything other than a France win. At juicy odds of 15/8, I’m tempted to go large. For the more adventurous gambler, a bet I like is France to score in both halves is 7/2 but first and foremost, get your money on Les Bleu to nail JT and co.