Hodgson’s patched-up England pass first test with grounds for optimism

With injuries to a whole host of key players and the infamous case of Wayne Rooney’s untimely banishment to the stands for the start of Euro 2012, England’s national side have enjoyed a spell of relative calm and relaxation in this their first appearance in the European Championships for eight years.

As seems always the case with England, preparation was far from ideal in the weeks and months leading up to their opening game against a re-modelled French side under the guidance of Laurent Blanc. The protracted search and eventual appointment of Fabio Capello’s successor, and the largely disgruntled reception when Roy Hodgson got the nod over the endearing Harry Redknapp set an all too familiar precedent for the ensuing preparatory work.

Injuries to Gary Cahill, Gareth Barry, Frank Lampard and John Ruddy to name but a few was met with groans of well-rehearsed scepticism from a nation used to disappointment. Yet, these potentially damaging omissions from the 23-man party have in fact led to a refreshing, albeit forced change of personnel. 18-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is the stand-out example of a bold, exciting selection by Hodgson, and with the forced delving deeper in to the English talent pool, the likes of Liverpool’s Martin Kelly and Jordan Henderson have also been given an invaluable chance to impress.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played with no fear, and was impressive on the big stage.

Indeed, it was the younger ‘new generation’ of players that would go on to reap the most praise, arguably, from the respectable, if not stylish 1-1 draw with France in Donetsk on Monday evening. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was an outlet on the left flank, and looked fearless as he took on the polished Mathieu Debuchy, by no means an easy feat. In addition, the absence of Wayne Rooney in the final third was always going to be felt, but his Manchester United colleagues did a fine job of making his absence as ineffectual as possible, Ashley Young pulling the strings in the ‘number 10’ role, tucked neatly in behind the impressive Danny Welbeck, whose work-rate and hold-up play was pivotal in England’s attempts to stem the French waves of attack.

Despite never really looking like a genuine goal-threat from open play, the set-piece England did manage to score from was well executed, and quite frankly vital, with France’s search for goals of their own looking far more likely to produce results.It would be all too easy to view England’s performance as feeble and cowardly, often resembling a damage limitation exercise as opposed to a credible attempt at taking the game to their opposition. But upon further consideration, it would appear to have been more of a tactical success-story for Roy and his team, despite the sightly embarrassing statistic of only amassing three shots to France’s far superior nineteen.

Karim Benzema was one of a number of French players often stifled by England.

With Patrice Evra quoted in this morning’s media as claiming “[They] played in the way that Chelsea played against Barcelona”, it is perhaps more constructive to take his jibe as a compliment, the stark truth that Chelsea successfully went on to win the Champions League with such an approach doing no harm to the tactic’s image. He continued “At times it was like there were 15 bodies on the pitch.”

Alas, the result ultimately stands England in good stead to progress from the group, an achievement some back home were even beginning to doubt, despite the far superior reputation of Hodgson’s men along with their cross-channel counterparts in comparison with the Swedes and last night’s surprise, Shevchenko-inspired winners and co-hosts Ukraine.

The spine of the team looks to be in good shape ahead of Friday’s tie with Sweden in Kiev, with Joe Hart and the rest of the defence looking stoic and Scott Parker complimenting skipper Steven Gerrard. Add to that Wayne Rooney’s imminent return to availability, and the assumption that England will manage to build on the firm basis and confidence the France result would have instilled the camp with, a tentative return to some form of optimism may be due, as a nation looks ahead to the rest of the campaign.

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