DONETSK: England have never won their opening match in the finals of the European Championship an that prospect loomed into sight only briefly after Joleon Lescott headed them in front against France in the Donbass Arena. Within minutes, however, Les Bleus were level but without being able to capitalise.
Eight years ago England faced France in the first game of the finals. They took a headed early lead through Frank Lampard but lost to two goals from Zinedine Zidane in stoppage time. At least history did not repeat itself on Roy Hodgson’s competitive debut as England manager after the two friendly victories over Norway and Belgium.
The 1-1 draw means he is unbeaten after three matches. It also meant, as skipper Steven Gerrard said afterwards, that England had constructed a platform going forward to Fridays meeting with Sweden in Kiev.
France controlled the opening halfhour in terms of possession but England had the best early chance when James Milner stepped wide of keeper Hugo Lloris but slipped his shot into the side net. They went ahead in the 31st minute when Manchester City defender Joleon Lescott ran in behind five defenders and headed home a right-wing free kick from captain Steven Gerrard.
France snapped back in defence of their 21-game unbeaten run. A header from Alou Diarra brought a sharp reflex save from keeper Joe Hart and the midielder should have done better than head the loose ball wide. It was a warning which England did not heed. In the 39th minute Hart was unsighted as his Manchester City club-mate Samir Nasri beat him on the near, right-hand post with a rasping low shot from just outside the penalty area.
The heat and humidty meant the pace of the game was far below that of the rest thus far at the finals and may have accounted for the steady even approach to the second half of both teams.
France were probing away at England’s defence with Franck Ribery wandering off his wing and Patrice Evra supporting attack up the left. England leaned heavily on Gerrard to pull the midfield strings. Hart made sharp saves from Karim Benzema and Frank Ribery as France ramped up the pressure with a succession of corners in the closing stages . . . all tono avail.
In the circumstances the draw was a better result for England than for France.
= = = =