There was chaos outside – and, later, inside – the ground but the England team performed something of a charm offensive at Marseille’s Stade Velodrome last night.
But however pleasing on the eye Roy Hodgson’s side were, their old failings persisted. Eric Dier’s well struck free-kick with 17 minutes left should have secured a deserved three points for England. But they were undone in the final seconds as Russia put some long overdue pressure on their opponents.
England’s worst fears were realised when Russia skipper Vasil Berezutski crowned a superb performance with an equalising header in the dying moments. Substitute Denis Glushakov made sure at the far post, but it was Berezutski’s goal – and a deserved one for his gritty display, which saw him excel at the other end mostly.
It was another pulsating, senses-frazzling start to a major finals for England. As in Manaus two years ago, nothing came easily. It was warm but far from Amazonian levels of humidity, one complication when they opened their World Cup finals campaign against Italy.
England look a far better proposition now than then. But just as they had the misfortune to run into Andre Pirlo at his imperious best on that sweltering evening in Brazil, last night it was a goalkeeper who dignified a proud lineage that includes Lev Yashin and Rinat Dasaev.
Igor Akinfeev kept Russia in the game. He deserved better than to see Dier’s free-kick fly past him just three minutes after pulling off an astounding save low to his left from Wayne Rooney’s pile-driver, with the post also playing a part.
But nothing was going to stop Dier’s effort three minutes later. His free-kick looked a goal from the moment it left his right foot, after Harry Kane had made a dummy run over the ball. This was a night of reinvention for England.
The old guard have moved on. Only Rooney can be so described really and he is only 30. The skipper was industrious last night in a withdrawn, central midfield role, playing in that position for his country for the first time. He let those such as Adam Lallana, Dele Alli and even Danny Rose, a rampaging Spurs left back, to provide the inspiration.
Lallana might have had a hat-trick in the opening 22 minutes. English fans roared their team on in a stadium where there was a number of empty seats. Tickets touts had fistfuls of briefs outside but few takers.
There was a carnival atmosphere outside the stadium two hours before kick off. Inside the Velodrome poor segregation – a thin line of stewards separated England and Russia fans – prompted concern. These shoddy arrangements were later proved to be ingredients helping trouble brew, with Russian fans charging at their England counterparts at the end.
If using phrase like under siege felt insensitive on a day when battles raged between rival supporters it was certainly appropriate to describe how Afkineev spent the first-half.
He was first called into serious action to tip a fierce Lallana effort over the bar. Kane, when he wasn’t bafflingly being asked to take corner-kicks, seemed to be always just too late to connect with crosses to the back post. He just missed a Raheem Sterling cross that was flicked on by Alli. A brilliant back-flick from Sterling then set up Rose, whose cross was bent towards the back post again. Kane’s run was again just too late.
Lallana then drove wide of the far post after a brilliantly worked move down the right. Next it was Rooney who thundered a shot towards goal after flicking the ball up for himself. The half-time whistle brought to an end almost constant England pressure.
As their fans feared, they then struggled to slip back into the groove. Russia enjoyed their best moments of the game in this early second-half stage.
But when Alli fell under a challenge around 20 yards from goal, England, with time getting short, sensed their opportunity.
Kane ran over the ball at the free-kick and it’s just as well he did. Dier stepped up behind him to send a shot high past Akinfeev. But it was not enough. A high cross from the left was met by Berezutski, whose header looped over Hart in injury-time.