France 1 England 1
England have battled their way to a Euro 2012 draw with France in Donetsk.
Joleon Lescott had put them in front after half an hour, but they could only hold the lead for nine minutes as Samir Nasri struck from the edge of the area.
England never really looked like restoring their advantage, instead relying on the obdurate defensive traits that have been so evident in Roy Hodgson’s previous two friendlies in charge.
As France are expected to advance from Group D, the new manager could be pretty pleased with the outcome on a sweltering night.
There are obvious deficiencies though and it is going to take far longer than the six weeks Hodgson has had to prepare for this competition to drill home the importance of keeping hold of the ball.
So much has changed in the two years since South Africa, yet by half-time there was an uncomfortable sense the fundamentals remained the same.
Five of Hodgson’s first competitive starting line-up were on duty for the World Cup opener in Rustenburg, when England blitzed the United States, got their noses in front and then needlessly tossed away the advantage.
Steven Gerrard scored that night. This time he was the provider, curling over a superb free-kick from the touchline, where James Milner had been nudged over by Patrice Evra.
Lescott would not have been playing if Gary Cahill’s tournament had not been ended by a broken jaw before it had begun.
The Manchester City man is a threat in these situations though and got away from Alou Diarra at the far post to beat goalkeeper Hugo Lloris from point-blank range.
It could quite easily have been doubling the advantage as not long before, Milner had raced onto Ashley Young’s through-ball and skipped round Lloris.
On Twitter, Gary Lineker revealed in such situations, you should always aim beyond the far post because in almost every instance, the ball ends up being cut towards the near.
Unfortunately, Milner does not have the striking instinct of the man who scored 48 goals for his country. He did what came naturally, and the ball ended up rolling wide.
These were brief moments in the ascendancy for England though.
Having already recorded the pre-match temperature at 31 degrees, UEFA came up with another startling statistic at half-time, namely France had completed 299 passes to England’s 171. By the end it was a staggering 634 to 307.
It was indicative of an old English failing and explained why France dictated most of the game.
Twenty-one games unbeaten, the French response to going behind was swift.
A nervy-looking Joe Hart produced a fine save to deny Diarra, who climbed highest to reach a Nasri free-kick, very similar in execution to Gerrard’s earlier.
Franck Ribery cut the rebound back into the danger area but Diarra was unable to locate the target.
On their next attack, France had more success. An intricate passing move on the edge of the area, starting with Evra, led to Ribery rolling a pass back to Nasri, who gave himself space with the first touch and beat Hart with his second.
The replays did not look good for the England keeper, even if criticism should be tempered by the knowledge Nasri had far too much time to pick his spot.
This depressingly familiar pattern for those who crave a bit of guile and creativity continued after the break, even if England’s lack of finesse was matched by their defensive belligerence.
Karim Benzema’s ferocious long-range effort was well saved by Hart and from a similar distance, Florent Malouda’s shot cannoned into Scott Parker.
The outstanding Yohan Cabaye then came agonisingly close with another well-struck shot that flicked narrowly wide off Danny Welbeck.
By this stage, England had introduced Jermain Defoe in an effort to provide Welbeck with more orthodox support.
Sat behind the dug-out, suspended Wayne Rooney was living every kick, doubtless both him and Hodgson wishing he could do something more meaningful.
Yet it also said something about the respective strengths of the two squads that whilst Hodgson introduced Jordan Henderson because Parker was flagging, Laurent Blanc had Hatem Ben Arfa up his sleeve.
Gerrard stuck his neck out to turn a goalbound effort from Benzema over the bar, before England finally created some excitement of their own as Milner rolled a cross to the near post for Welbeck, which Philippe Mexes stretched out a leg to reach first.
Injury-time brought just one French opportunity, for Benzema, but Hart saved to complete a decent night’s work for Hodgson’s men, even if solid, rather than spectacular looks to be the way forward.