A storied rivalry kicks off Group D action on Monday as France and England square off in a much talked about fixture. There is no shortage of storylines as both teams are coming off dismal performances in South Africa two years ago, and are looking for redemption.
The French made wholesale changes after the debacle that was the 2010 World Cup and Les Bleus are hopeful it will pay off in Poland and Ukraine in 2012. Gone is manager Raymond Domenech, who has a strenuous relationship with his players. His replacement if former French star Laurent Blanc, who was part of the 1998 World Cup Champions and 2000 Euro Champions as a defender. Blanc has a better understanding of today’s players and is seen as a mentor to his players.
The French usually go with a 4-2-2 formation but after an abductor injury forced forward Loic Remy to the sidelines, Blanc may use different tactics against England. Olivier Giroud should be on the sheet for France. However Giroud is facing a distraction at the wrong time. There are many reports suggesting the Montpellier striker is set to join Arsenal on a transfer. Giroud will have to remain focused on the task at hand. Karim Benzema and Jeremy Menez are other options up front. Benzema does have more international experience so expect him to see more time on the pitch.
The versatile Franck Ribery is the talismanic figure for France. The Bayern Munich midfielder can move up and play forward as well, but is best suited as an attacking midfielder. Florent Malouda could also be a vital cog to the French machine. The Chelsea midfielder laboured this past season for the Blues but does have 77 caps for France and brings a wealth of experience. Other choices for France in the midfield are, Alou Diarra, Hatem Ben Arfa, Samir Nasri, Yohan Cabaye, and Yann M’Villa.
The back has some questions to deal with. Patrice Evra did not have a stellar season with Manchester United and needs to recover his form for France to succeed. Gael Clichy is inconsistent but does show proper form on his best days and his familiar with the English squad, having played for Manchester City this past season. Phillipe Mexes, Adil Rami, and Anthony Reveillere could all see their names on the sheet depending on what Blanc decides to do.
Hugo Lloris did not have his best season with Lyon, but is a strong keeper for France. The captain of the side, Lloris provides leadership and a sense of calm, which is so necessary for the last line of defence.
England come in with the usual amount of media hype and tabloid tales. Expectations are low for the Three Lions, which might be a relief for the English. Injuries to Gary Cahill and Frank Lampard, along with the two match ban handed to Wayne Rooney puts England in a precarious position. Manager Roy Hodgson has come under intense scrutiny for his team selection, with the controversial additions of Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing.
England uses a 4-2-2 formation and they will sit back and play defensive, pragmatic football, which worked for Chelsea in winning the Champions League last month.
With Rooney suspended, Andy Carroll, Jermain Defoe and Danny Welbeck will be on Hodgson’s decision list on who will start. Odds are favouring Carroll and Welbeck to be on the sheet with Defoe as a possible substitute. Carroll has size, but his clumsy and lost confidence in his abilities at Liverpool this past season. Welbeck would work better with Rooney since they are teammates at Manchester United but Welbeck needs to be more consistent.
The midfield is in upheaval as well. With Lampard sidelined, Steven Gerrard is expected to be the talismanic figure for England. The Liverpool midfielder has battled a nagging groin injury for the last couple of seasons, so his fitness is a concern. Ashley Young should also be in the starting eleven. The Manchester United midfielder is skilled, but is known to vanish at key times. Theo Walcott will be used as a winger. Scott Parker is an underrated midfielder. Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain is 18-year-old prodigy, who has a sparkling future.
The back isn’t spared of controversy either. Then again, any squad with John Terry will never be short of dissension. Terry is a lightning rod for England, whether it be is accusations of racism, or his thuggish actions on the pitch, Terry is a polarizing figure for England. Ashley Cole can be boorish as well, but he does bring quality in the back. Glen Johnson, Joleon Lescott, Phil Jones, and Phil Jagielka are all possible starters for England.
Joe Hart is a fine keeper for Manchester City, and should be the starting keeper for England. Hart is an athletic, nimble keeper who possess poise and principle for England. He will need to be at his best for England to have any hope of advancing.
Prediction: With all the issues surrounding the England side, being on the pitch could be a relief for them. However the French are a team on the rise and are seeking redemption. The lack of quality hurts England and France will see to it that they will expose England at the back. France comes away with a 2-0 result.
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