Only the Russians, with Andrei Arshavin dazzlingly back to the form he showed in two outstanding games four years ago for Russia in these championships, have truly swept away the opposition. Germany were surely fortunate to scrape through 1-0 against a Portuguese team which had them on the ropes in the final stages. The much trumpeted Dutch were a damp squib against the gallant Danes for all their supposed array of stars. The Italians having collapsed in that friendly versus Russia surprised the Spaniards with an assured performance which thoroughly deserved that draw. In the process exposing faults in the Spanish defence and the pitiful continuation of poor Fernando Torres’ torment.
Given the all too short time Hodgson has had to prepare his team, its resistance to a greatly gifted technically superior French side was admirable. He was well justified in saying, “I thought we played well…they do ask questions of you when they get the ball…I thought we kept them very much at bay.”
By and large they did. It was surely a credit to Hodgson that morale was so high, even if, much of the game was something of a battle of attrition. And England missed the first real chance of the game on only 14 minutes, when Ashley Young neatly set up James Milner on the left, but Milner’s poor shot flew wide of the near post.
Joe Hart was perhaps like England themselves unlucky with Nasri’s equaliser. As he said afterwards, with understatement, when asked if he could see the shot which slipped between him and his right hand post, “Not very well.” He also said, “We sat back a bit, which was silly.” Though whether this was voluntary or imposed by the superior French forward play in which Frank Ribery, however roughly treated at times, was irrepressible wherever he wandered, was a moot point.
Lescott’s splendid piece of opportunism when he headed in Steven Gerrard’s free kick on 29 minutes gave England immense encouragement and put the French on the back foot. Yes, as we knew too well the team has no playmaker; for all Gerrard’s splendid energy, commitment and ubiquity. No Jack Wilshere alas to “invent the game,” or spring surprise. The one player capable of doing the unexpected in attack was watching from the stand; Wayne Rooney still expiating the two-match suspension brought about by his own folly in Montenegro.
It was bold of Hodgson to put the 18-year-old Oxlade Chamberlain in and as he himself said, there were three occasions when it looked as if the winger might break through only for him to be fouled on all three occasions. Chamberlain himself sounded disappointed that he could not have played more of an out and out attacking roll.
At least though we can surely lay the Terry-Ferdinand imbroglio to rest. It was clearly palpable that both of them could not be chosen given the continuing tensions over Anton Ferdinand and the alleged racism insult. Terry may have struggled a few weeks back against Liverpool, may have disgraced himself in Barcelona but against the French he looked cool and commanding. Plainly though he could face problems against both Zoltan Ibrahomivic and that remarkable blast from the past, Andriy Shevchenko, brought back, so to speak, out of mothballs by Ukraine against the Swedes, to score two fine goals.
Ireland? Against Croatia they committed a kind of suicide their previously resilient defence giving away goals which should never arguably have been scored. But then, Gianni Trappatoni had already lamented their poor form in Hungary where in that friendly, drawn 0-0, he thought that they deserved to lose by three goals. But Croatia seem to have found a proper successor to their line of celebrated strikers in the burly Mario Mandzukic. England? Sweden and Ukraine – with Rooney back – should not be beyond them.