France and England played out a 1-1 draw in the opening game of group D played in Donetsk on Monday evening. As expected, it was the French who owned a significant advantage in general play, but weren’t able to translate that advantage into a deciding result on the scoreboard.
As they have done so often in major international tournaments, England grabbed the first goal against the run of the play in the 30th minute after Steven Gerrard’s long free kick was well headed-in by Joleon Lescott, who beat Alou Diarra for position in the box.
But it wasn’t long before the French equalised, as the dynamic playmakers in Les Blues’ midfield linked up, resulting in an exquisite long strike from Samir Nasri that found the bottom left corner of the net past an out-stretched Joe Hart.
France dominated the final exchanges of the opening half, and took that advantage into the start of the second period. However the heat appeared to get the better of the players in the second half, as the match pace slowed and saw fewer attacking forays from both sides. And despite a late flurry from Laurent Blanc’s side, France was unable to finish off the result.
The match saw a cagey start from both teams, as both England and France played rather conservatively in the opening exchanges. Yet Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain obviously didn’t get the defensive memo, as he quickly went about picking Adil Rami’s pocket in the 2nd minute and dashed towards goal, but couldn’t thread a cross to Danny Welbeck.
Yet aside from this, it was the French that appeared to settle quicker and began to find their rhythm down their powerful left side with Franck Ribery leading the charge by continually running at James Milner and Glen Johnson.
Yohan Cabaye then cleverly found a breaking Ribery on the left side in the 10th minute but the Bayern Munich trickster was unable to get a shot or cross away. And just a minute later, Patrice Evra, Karim Benzema and Ribery were able to link up and found Samir Nasri who shot just wide of Joe Hart’s near post.
And just when it seemed that France had all the play, England broke down the left and Ashley Young, who was the best of the English in the opening half, found James Milner who moved around Hugo Lloris but couldn’t pull the shot back and failed to register the opener with his side’s first great chance.
Les Blues then continued to find the majority of attacking forays, but were consistently forced to either shoot from distance or cross to an empty penalty area as Karim Benzema seemed intent on playing around the edges of the box rather than forming a presence in front of Hart. Had Benzema played more centrally, Mathieu Debuchy’s fine attacking work down the right from full back may have been rewarded as he consistently crossed the ball in from the right and looked a handful for England.
Nasri continued to look like the architect for France, as the Manchester City midfielder dominated play in the first half. But it all turned in the 30th minute when Joleon Lescott headed in from Gerrard’s long free kick. The curling ball saw Diarra unable to impact Lescott, while Lloris failed to move from his line and impact the free kick.
Diarra almost made up for his defensive lapse just 5 minutes later when his powerful header from Nasri’s free-kick was spectacularly saved by Hart in the 35th minute. Yet another typical early English goal was pegged back when the French’s potent attack found its gear, with Ribery laying off for Nasri to beautifully shoot into the bottom corner past Hart’s out-stretched right hand in the 39th minute.
The French went into half time by dominating the later stages of the first half, in which England was camped in their own half for the majority of the final 5 minutes.
As the second half started, England, who were again camped in their own half, survived an early scare when Milner’s back pass was almost cut off by Nasri streaking into the box.
Gerrard went down just outside the penalty area in the 53rd minute, but the referee deemed the impact not worthy of a free kick, despite the Liverpool midfielder appearing slow to get up following what appeared to be significant contact.
The French immediately went down the other end and put pressure on England, with Evra firing a cross into the box that had to be cleared by Johnson for a French corner. Diarra continued to be a focal point in the penalty area as Samir Nasri sought to find the giant midfielder from crosses, with Benzema still reluctant to move inside the 18-yard box.
Even when England were able to find some space out wide, the French were quick to close, as Ribery shut down a streaking Glen Johnson on the right in the 58th minute. Gerrard’s corner, after England played on despite Ribery apparently in pain on the ground, almost found an open John Terry, who’s header was just blocked by Rami on 62 minutes.
The French again showed their flair when Nasri layed off for Benzema after receiving from Evra in the 64th minute. The Real Madrid star striker was able to launch a powerful strike from well outside the box that Joe Hart was able to save on the line.
It was the first real threat that Benzema had presented in the match as he continued to play further out from goal than expected. Meanwhile, Diarra continued to be an imposing presence in the French midfield, as he consistently stopped the likes of Gerrard and Oxlade-Chamberlain from hurting Les Blues on the break and provided a solid blend of attack and defence for Laurent Blanc.
The heat appeared to be having an effect on players from both teams, as Scott Parker and Samir Nasri were both beginning to show the fatigue that comes with consistent hard running in conditions like these as 70 minutes approached. Roy Hodgson brought on Jermain Defoe to replace Oxlade-Chamberlain on 77 minutes, who faded out of the game in the second half, to give his team some fresh legs in the sapping heat in Donetsk. Scott Parker, who also performed a sterling job in midfield was replaced by Jordan Henderson at the same break in play. This switched Young to the left, while Defoe headed the attack with Welbeck.
Nasri again looked for Diarra with a free kick earned by Ribery in the 80th minute, but his header was blocked. Cabaye’s long range shot just seconds later was headed for the back of the net, but was deflected by Welbeck, and saved Hart from conceding a second goal.
The pace and tempo of the game began to slow significantly as the clock ticked past 81 minutes, as the temperature continued to greatly impact the players on the pitch. Debuchy, who played a lesser role in the second half, again looked dangerous on the right as he picked John Terry’s pocket on the goal line in the 83rd minute, but his cross was cut off as he broke into the box.
Hatem Ben Arfa then replaced his fellow Newcastle midfielder Cabaye on 84 minutes to give the French even more options in attack.
Mexes cut off Milner’s dangerous low cross headed for Welbeck in the 89th minute to force a corner for the English, which the French were able to subsequently clear.
Theo Walcott was introduced in the 90th minute and replaced a tiring Danny Welbeck on the front line of England’s attack just before Benzema’s long shot was saved by Hart in the 93rd minute. It was the last chance of the game which ended in a 1-1 draw in the first match of the tournament for each team.