France v England: Key battles

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England and France will get their Euro 2012 campaigns underway in less than 24 hours, with both teams going into the game with their fair share of questions that remain unanswered.

England are the underdogs and have plenty of selection decisions to make ahead of the game in Donetsk, while France have the attacking talent but there are certainly some doubts about their strength at the back.

Both giants of European football will be desperate for a win – so where will this game be won and lost?

Attack v Defence

Former England defender Gareth Southgate has already admitted this limited England team will have no chance in going blow to blow with France in terms of possession and there is no doubting that England will sit deep, absorb pressure and look to hit on the break.

Denmark proved yesterday that with a huge slice of luck it is possible to secure a win in this manner; it may not be pretty but England simply can’t match France going forward.

So if that is the case then it will be a battle between the likes of John Terry, Joleon Lescott and Ashley Cole against Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri and Olivier Giroud. It is difficult to become a cohesive unit similar to Chelsea’s defensive four in the Champions League in such a short amount of time as England have had to do, and they will have to ride their luck to keep Les Blues at bay.

Defence v attack

While England will have to defend for their lives, there is no doubting that France are nowhere near as strong at the back as they are going forward, and that is something England must look to exploit.

In their recent warm-up fixture against Iceland, France went 2-0 down thanks to some cumbersome defensive work and although they fought back to claim a win their flaws were on display for all to see.

Centre-havles Phillipe Mexes and Adil Rami are physically able but slow and appear to have a tendency to switch off. Andy Carroll may be well stewarded by the pair but the combination of Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck is a different proposition. If they can move quickly, create space and pull them apart, then there will be room for either one, or a midfield runner such as Steven Gerrard to move into space and cause damage.

Full-backs Patrice Evra and Mathieu Debuchy have also appeared vulnerable, something England’s quicker players need to exploit. Theo Walcott, either starting or from the bench, loves to run into the channel between centre-half and full-back, and he can certainly do that against France.

Midfield battle

With Yann M’Vila looking increasingly likely to miss the game against England, France have a real conundrum in midfield.

While the Rennes man finished the season poorly he is vital to the way France operate. From his deep sitting position in midfield he keeps France’s rhythm constant, and is a metronome when it comes to distributing the ball.

Whoever comes to take his place – even Arsenal centre-back Laurent Koscielny was deployed there during one of their warm up fixtures – has to be prepared to deal with Steven Gerrard looking to get forward, and shut down the Liverpool man from spraying balls to England’s quick men on the break. It is a tough job, and without M’Vila, England might find a bit more space to operate in.

Two-tiered midfield

Yann M’Vila’s absence is a real blow for France but there is no doubting which side has the most quality in midfield, and it isn’t the team in white.

The problem for England in losing Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard to injury is they now look short of options in midfield, and if they play with a fairly standard 4-4-2 as expected, then Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard who are expected to start face a long day at the office.

France will have one genuine holding midfielder in Alou Diarra while Yohan Cabaye will set ahead of him as a ball player. Then there is the attacking trio of Franck Ribery, Samir Nasri and one other, most likely Florent Malouda who will form the second tier in midfield behind Karim Benzema. Simply put England will be outnumbered in midfield and although they are expected to concede possession it is a dangerous game to allow yourself to be dominated.

James Milner, who is likely to be selected as a nominal winger, will be asked to tuck in and help out to ensure England are not overran in the middle of the park, while Ashley Young will also have to drop back into midfield when France have the ball.

A matter of pride

Neither of these two teams have covered themselves in glory in recent years at major tournaments – England just about kept their capitulation on the pitch at the 2010 World Cup while France’s problems spilled over into training in front of the watching world.

Laurent Blanc has gone some way to ensure France have got their team spirit back, something he declared his first real ‘victory’ as his country’s manager, while England appear relaxed and confident in the absence of the crippling expectation that usually follows them into tournaments.

The heat expected in Ukraine and the importance of their meeting coming as their first game of the tournament will ratchet up the pressure, and the victor will be whoever can cope as a team and work best as a unit – Blanc’s work post-2010 and Roy Hodgson’s work over the last month or so will be truly put under the microscope.

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Steven Gerrard

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