Greater challenges ahead for England after solid start to Euro 2012

On paper, England survived unscathed from their toughest Group D opponents, but in reality, far greater challenges await them at Euro 2012. Built to contain their opponents, England will be forced out of their comfort zone in Kiev on Friday for a must win game against Sweden, currently bottom of the group and facing elimination.

As befitting a Roy Hodgson-coached side, England were disciplined in their 1-1 draw with Laurent Blanc’s France, retaining their shape throughout and putting their bodies on the line time and again. Two banks of four sat deep and frustrated a French side that were sluggish and found very little space in the final third. France enjoyed 65% of possession and made 654 passes, compared to England’s 345, but with Karim Benzema forced to come deep, France subsequently lacked a cutting edge.

England enjoyed a bright start and benefitted from sloppy marking and an exceptional Steven Gerrard cross to open the scoring. It was their only attempt on target however and the lead was surrendered within nine minutes. It appears to be ingrained in the English psyche that a lead must be defended at all costs and they immediately retreated. Defending deeper and deeper, Samir Nasri found himself in 10 yards of space on the edge of the box before drilling home the equaliser. England’s brief loss of concentration had been punished.

Ashley Young, one of six starters experiencing international tournament conditions for the first time, was tasked with providing attacking impetus but remained a peripheral figure throughout. There appears to be an assumption that England are treading water until Wayne Rooney serves his two-match ban, that he will ride to England’s rescue, providing fresh legs and fresh impetus. If England fail to adopt a more proactive approach, it is likely that Rooney will be just as isolated as his Manchester United teammate.

Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard gave their all in the centre of midfield, but Parker was withdrawn before the end adding to concerns about his fitness. Gerrard was also out on his feet, but with a lack of options in this particular position, Hodgson has very little choice but to play both and hope that they can manage the fatigue. The whole side appeared to struggle in the stifling humidity of Donetsk’s Donbass Arena, where they will return to face hosts Ukraine in their final group game. That game will be played in front of a partisan crowd and England may well reflect on the France game as a comparative walk in the park.

Sweden are historically a bogey team for England. The 1-0 victory over the Scandinavians last November was their first win in more than 40 years. The Swedes will also be fired up after stinging criticism from manager Erik Hamren after their limp performance in losing 2-1 to the Ukraine. “We didn’t show the courage we were supposed to,” Hamren lamented. “Only five or six players did. We all need all the players doing that. We were cowards in the first half and should have done more. I’m not happy with the team, I was expecting more.

England’s priority will be to shackle Sweden’s maverick talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who provided an impressive display on Monday, opening the scoring and single-handedly carrying the fight to group leaders Ukraine. It will be no easy feat.

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