France ready for hard battle with old rivals

France ready for hard battle with old rivals

DONETSK - Reuters
France ready for hard battle with old rivals

Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema (L) will be key in France coach Laurent Blanc’s plans tonight, while the inury-hit England will rely on the services of midfielder Steven Gerrard. REUTERS and AFP photos

England has an “under new management” sign hanging over its door but there is unlikely to be anything “nouveau” in the team’s approach when it meets in-form France in the opening Group D clash in Donetsk tonight.

Hit by a series of injuries, manager Roy Hodgson, appointed on May 1, has had little time to do anything other than patch up a functional team and resort to England’s traditional strengths.

This has meant encouraging a more direct style, with greater emphasis on earlier and longer passing towards a “target” striker and less reliance on retaining possession.

Bespectacled and studious coach Laurent Blanc, who has rebuilt France from the ruins of its embarrassing, discordant exit from the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa, will not be surprised.

Blanc, who has overseen an unbeaten run of 21 matches, knows the English game well and has warned his men to expect a tough physical contest in which logic and statistics will be brushed aside.

The European champions of 1984 and 2000 will have to impose themselves before they can express any artistry in a clash that is likely to see an England defense, marshaled by John Terry, repelling the thrust of Karim Benzema and the creative forces of Samir Nasri and Franck Ribery.

After seeing Blanc’s success in rebuilding France, the players are confident.

“He has instilled a group mentality and team spirit, like you find in a club,” said midfielder Yohan Cabaye. “You can see the change on the pitch.”

France, he added, may have a slight psychological advantage after winning their last meeting, at Wembley in a friendly in 2010. “But this is different,” said Cabaye. “It is a competitive game, the first match…”

In the absence of injured midfielders Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry, and without suspended striker Wayne Rooney, England will offer power, strength and durability.

It may also resort to an aerial bombardment that prevents a team of superior technical players from enjoying possession.

Hodgson, who has kept his distance from the media since England landed in Poland, is expected to include two industrious wingers in James Milner and Stewart Downing to restrict the space for the French forwards and provide counter-attacking chances for either Danny Welbeck or Andy Carroll.

Downing, back in favor, clearly believes England can revel in its role as underdog. “We don’t fear them. We know they are a good team, but so are we,” he said. “We know their strengths and weaknesses.”

Euro 2012,