KEIR RADNEDGE in MARSEILLE —- The football between England and Russia, as they finally came to grips here in Euro 2016, could in no way erase the disgrace aroused over two previous days in the Vieux Port by followers – not worthy to be described as ‘fans’ – of both nations as well as local troublemakers.
But at least the focus of attention had shifted away from the exhibitionist hooligans and back to a football match in which Tottenham midfielder Eric Dier shot England deservedly ahead from a 72nd-minute free kick only for Russian skipper Vasili Berezutski to head a defiant stoppage-time equaliser for a 1-1 draw.
Unhappily, the final whistle prompted a large contingent of Russian fans in ‘their’ end of the Stade Veldrome to invade seats occupied by nearby English fans, their advance being accompanied by a rain of bottles and other missiles. An engrossing match had not deserved to end thus, from any aspect.
On a football level both teams had a great deal to prove after suffering the identical World Cup humiliation in 2014 of being eliminated within the first week and two group games. Lingering memories thus quelled the usual onrush of self-deceiving expectation which had proved an impossible burden for too many England in recent times and tournaments.
Manager Roy Hodgson, well aware of his team’s deficiencies in defence and strength in attack, sent out a team built to go forward with ‘only’ Eric Dier as a holding midfielder, flanked by Dele Alli and captain Wayne Rooney, supported by Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling off the wings and with Harry Kane at centre-forward.
By contrast the Russians, beset by injury absences, came into the game as a somewhat unknown force and possibly all the more troublesome for it on the break as fatigue, tension and humidity would wreak a toll later in the game.
England put Hodgson’s attacking intent to work from the kickoff. Alli shot high and wide before a fine raid concocted at speed between Rooney and raiding rightback Kyle Walker ended with Lallana’s fierce drive flying over the bar off the gloves of keeper Igor Akinfeyev.
England’s right flank remained a blind spot for both Russian defenders and midfielders. In the 21st minute Walker found space (again) and fed the unmarked Lallana homing in on goal (again). This time the Liverpool forward kept his shot low but it skimmed just wide of Akinfeyev’s right-hand post.
Next it was Sterling’s turn to attack the Russians and only a fine saving tackle from Igor Smolnikov, racing across from right back, cut out the danger.
Russian leftback Georgi Schennikov was being spun around so often he would not have known whether Moscow was east or west. Next to torment him was Alli who somehow wriggled and shuffled a path between Schennikov and three panicking team-mates only for Akinfeyev to come to the rescue again with a sharp stop in response to Rooney’s drive.
Thus the 62,343 fans saw Russia survive unscathed, somehow, to half-time.
Russia readjusted at during the break. They began the second half playing flatter, higher lines and sought to take their game to England with the nimble Oleg Shatov from Zenit St Petersburg knitting their putative attacks together. Ironically, when Joe Hart was forced to make a save – tipping the ball over the bar – it was from a miscued defensive header by Dier.
Minutes later a long downfield clearance from Akinfeyev was knocked back to Dzyuba and Fedor Smolov stabbed a 20m shot just wide.
That was the provocation England needed. Suddenly their attack returned to life. Rooney had a low drive magnificently turned against the posts by Akinfeyev. But the keeper was helpless when Dier finally shot England in front from a free kick inside the ‘D’.
It was no more than England had long since deserved yet the lead was shortlived. In stoppage time Russian skipper Vasili Berezitsku turned up in the England penalty box to loop a header over Hart and leave England’s players aghast.
The ultimate irony was that the player who delivered the cross for him was none other than Schennikov. From zero to hero.
England: Hart – Walker, Cahill, Smalling, Rose – Alli, Dier, Rooney (Wilshere 78) – Lallana, Kane, Sterling (Milner 87).
Russia: Akinfeyev – Smolnikov, V Berezutski, Ignashevich, Schennikov – Neustadter (Glushakov 80), Golovin (Shirakov 77) – Kokorin, Shatov, Smolov (Mamaev 85) – Dzyuba.
Referee: Rizzoli (Italy).
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