Euro 2012: Reality bites for England

Apart from garnering publicity for their gambling business, the bookmaking firm that erected a 100ft statue of Roy “The Redeemer” Hodgson on the white cliffs of Dover the other day gave a reminder of the stark difference between the build-up to these championships and the hype and hoopla that has normally surrounded England going into tournaments. In recent times, the monuments to English footballing greatness were metaphorical but the hubris was real. Now the monument is real but the hubris is a joke. The Hodgson creation presents him in the image of Christ, but the underlying message is clear enough – and it’s no tribute. What it’s saying is that England are going to need divine intervention if they are to achieve anything in these championships.

And the unusual thing is that they seem to know it this time. If England were a television character they’d be Frank Spencer, such is the nature of their slapstick. The late change of manager, the injuries to Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry, Gary Cahill and John Ruddy, coupled with the suspension of Wayne Rooney, the farrago with Rio Ferdinand and the nagging worries about John Terry’s hamstring, Ashley Cole’s ankle and Scott Parker’s Achilles.

On top of that, Jermain Defoe had to leave the squad temporarily last week to deal with the death of his father.

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The tone of the preamble has been unprecedented. It’s realism to the point of pessimism. There has been barely a column written or a word spoken that could be seized upon by England’s detractors and branded as arrogant. The media have been downbeat. Normally by now, on the eve of their opening game, the jingoism is in full flight and the air of self-importance untrammelled. But there’s a self-awareness this time that is new.

Blind faith has given way to wide-open eyes. Instead of naive predictions of a semi-final spot being the “worst case scenario”, there is an appreciation that England have only once made it to the semi-finals of the modern Euros (since it was more than four nations competing, that is) and only then when it was on home soil in 1996. Since 1968 they have played 23 matches at the finals of the European championship and have won only eight. All in all, they have lost 48 per cent of their games.

The mood this time is different, so very different. There is a bit of a charm offensive going on with even Terry playing his part – by largely keeping his mouth shut. England have been as open and as accessible as they can be. They’re staying in the middle of Krakow, visible to all, as opposed to being locked away, as they were in South Africa two years ago in what Hodgson has beautifully described as “the golden cage”. Rooney did an interview during the week and he had to be practically hit over the head with the microphone to say that England could win the thing if all went well for them.

Hodgson is not a man to indulge in flights of fancy. He’s too grounded for that. If his two games in charge are anything to go by – a pair of 1-0 victories over Norway and Belgium – then everything is going to be built around organisation and solidity rather than any attempt to match the elan of the French. He couldn’t anyway, even if he wanted to, which he doesn’t. This is how Hodgson’s teams play. They work hard, they track back, they harry and hassle opponents and they hope to win 1-0. Of course, the desperate inability of English players to hold on to possession for any sustained period of time is the problem here. In South Africa, England’s passing was beyond abject. Hodgson’s only hope is that he can make up for a lack of technical ability with a massive work ethic. It’s a stretch, but it’s what he’s clinging to.

Against France he doesn’t really have that many choices to make in his starting line-up. If there is a debate to be had it’s possibly up front where Ashley Young – four goals in his last four internationals – is going to play in behind either Danny Welbeck or Andy Carroll, depending who you talk to. It makes sense to pick Carroll if Stewart Downing and James Milner, the wide midfielders, can plant some crosses on his head but, beyond offering honest work-rate, you have to wonder about the pair of them. Downing has had a poor first season with Liverpool and Milner spent much of Manchester City’s thrilling title run-in as an unused substitute. In City’s last six league games, going back to early April, Milner saw the sum total of one minute’s action. These guys can’t exactly be brimming with confidence

Question marks about Carroll, too. Lots of them. Hodgson would be making a giant leap of faith if he picked him based on an upturn in form right at the end of a wretched season that saw the £35million man fail to score against any of the top five teams in the Premiership despite playing against them a combined total of 12 times. Welbeck, on the other hand, is a more industrious operator, more inclined to conjure something out of nothing or take the one chance he may be presented with. If Hodgson was told that England would have just one chance against France tomorrow who would he rather it fell to in Rooney’s absence? Surely, Welbeck.

The Manchester United striker must relish the prospect of having a crack at the French defence, providing his team-mates can get him some service. He didn’t need to see France’s friendly against Estonia on Tuesday to know that the heart of their back four is somewhat vulnerable right now. He only had to look at Laurent Blanc’s quotes to figure it out. France beat Estonia 4-0 to extend their unbeaten run to 21 games but Blanc made no secret of his unhappiness with his defence, Mathieu Debuchy of Lille, Adil Rami of Valencia, Philippe Mexes of AC Milan and Patrice Evra.

“I’m not going to beat around the bush,” said Blanc. “Our defence was not good enough. They need to improve, and I’m talking about all four defenders.” Mexes, in particular, is under pressure because of a perceived weight problem, an issue that Blanc hardly diffused after the Estonia game when he told reporters: “I can tell you that there are fatter people than him in the squad.” It’s easy to see France’s attacking options and get bewitched by them, to see the likes of Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri and Franck Ribery and the exciting Jeremy Menez of Paris Saint-Germain and conclude that France are good enough, not just to beat England and top their pool, but to win the tournament outright. They are no longer the basket case they were under the bonkers Raymond Domenech, no longer the soft touch always liable to implode. The defence is the issue, though. We know what their attacking players can do, but can they sort out the problems that Blanc has seen in that back four?

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What Monday will show is whether spirit and organisation are enough to keep England competitive and whether France, for all their style, have the bottle to break down a team that will come to defend and frustrate. A clash of styles and a game to savour.