Euro 2012 may get underway today with co-host Poland taking on Greece followed by Russia facing the Czech Republic, but you will have to wait through the weekend to get to the epic showdown between England and France on Monday.
Both countries come into this summer’s contest as outside favorites to win it all. England is battling the typical demons of scandal and tabloid press. They also have to deal with massive injury crisis, suspensions and deaths in family which will see them without five of their players in the contest.
France is as fit as ever, but still trying to exorcise the demons that infected them in 2010 in South Africa. But riding a 20-game unbeaten streak into Ukraine has certainly helped distance them from the past.
It is one of those matchups that is bound to be full of energy and anticipation as these nations sport their proud footballing heritage and attempt to better each other not only for three points, but bragging rights in a rivalry steeped in political and cultural differences from centuries ago.
Here are some of the key matchups to keep an eye out for as the game unfolds.
Many thought that Roy Hodgson made a mistake by not taking Micah Richards at right-back. The Manchester City defender was arguably the best RB in the league and is on his way to being one of the better ones in the world. He is a physical phenomenon and will be involved with the national side for years to come, so why not start now?
Whether or not this was a mistake will be put the test in the first match, as first-choice RB Glen Johnson will face what could be his most difficult challenge of the entire tournament in French winger Franck Ribery.
Ribery was one of the best wide players last season, plying his trade with Bayern Munich. He is as inventive of a player there is and as comfortable cutting inside to take a shot as he is going to the end line for a cross.
The one real knock against Ribery is he is not always consistent. At times, he can look like quite literally the best player in the world and at others disappear entirely. Who shows up has more to do with his own performance than any kind of scheme to keep him quiet.
Johnson is certainly capable of keeping Ribery quiet, but the question is at what cost. One thing Ribery does by reputation alone is keep the RB out of the attack. With England already limited in that respect and the wingers they currently have even more inconsistent than Ribery, that extra push up from the back may be what England needs.
Overall, this is one of those matchups that may not decide the outcome of the game, but very easily could decide who controls it.
This has slugfest written all over it. Two big, strong players who love to use their size and physical gifts to impose their will on the opposition face off here. Whoever gets the better in terms of dominating their opponent will win the game.
Karim Benzema is coming off a career year for Real Madrid, scoring 32 goals for Los Blancos and adding another 15 assists. His resurgence was also a major reason that they were finally able to wrestle the La Liga title away from Barcelona. He also has been very good for the French, scoring three goals and three assists in eight matches.
What may come as a surprise to some would be the fact that despite his size (184 cm and 83 kg) he is not particularly good in the air. He only managed three headed goals all season—a spot where John Terry excels.
You will likely see England attempt to filter the French out wide to make those crosses come in where Terry can dominate, but even on the ground he is a formidable match. He is an excellent tackler and never afraid to go into someone hard to make his presence felt.
You can expect to see a very physical battle between these two all game, where both know that wearing out the other is the best way to break them down.
This is where sports really gets fun: the meeting of two distinct philosophies of the game—one the more tested and conservative and the other progressive and unique. That is basically what you have with Scott Parker and Samir Nasri.
At 31 years old, Parker will be making only his 14th appearance in England colors, but he has earned to nod given the year he had with Tottenham. The Spurs' fourth-place finish was due in large part to Parker’s command of the midfield, a true central player who’s positions is best labeled with a simple “CM.” There is very little flair to his game, but even less to criticize.
He will likely be sitting just in front of the back line, buffering any counters and warding off drives through the middle. His ability to cut out through balls will make the life of the defenders much easier.
But it will not be as simple as that against Nasri.
Nasri made the big move to Manchester City this past summer and it paid off with an EPL title. Though statistically he was not as good as some would expect (six goals and nine assists), he was an influential playmaker, more delivering the pass to start the attack than the final one to end it.
He will roam and move all over the pitch, as likely to grab the ball in his own box to start a counter as he is to show up on the end of a cross in his opponents. He is tricky with the ball and shifty without, able to make a decisive run and pinpoint pass with similar ease.
Parker must remain vigilant in his responsibilities in defending him, not getting coaxed out of position the way Nasri wants. If he holds his ground, then there is a good chance Nasri will be silenced for much of the match. But if he falls prey to the traps, Nasri could change the entire game.
With Wayne Rooney suspended, Jermaine Defoe back home due to the loss of his father, Andy Carroll still Andy Carroll and Roy Hodgson stupidly refusing to take Grant Holt, the attack of England all rides on 21-year-old Danny Welbeck.
Welbeck has been performing okay for the Three Lions leading up to this tournament. He scored his first goal ever for the national side in a 1-0 friendly over Belgium. The problem was that in 54 minutes of play, that was the only shot he took.
The French defense has been one of the best leading up to this summer. They have conceded more than one goal only once dating back to August 2011. They are stingy group who have a good mix between speed and physical strength. But most importantly, they are balanced in experience and youth, led by Philippe Mexes.
Odds are that France will score at least one goal. They have just too much firepower not to. England can limit that number of goals against, but by sacrificing in the attack, meaning that Welbeck will have to do more on his own. This is not really a strength of his, as he is more of a striker who feeds off passes and runs, not holding up play and creating out of nothing.
If he becomes too isolated up top, he could falter and come under immense criticism. If he gets the support he needs, then he should be able to do something despite how good the French defense is.
Perhaps it is my bias of being a goaltender growing up (albeit in water polo) or the fact that I just watched my club Chelsea win their first Champions League title through excellent goalkeeping, but for me there is no one position that matters as much against two relatively even sides as the man between the posts.
Being a goalie is all about being consistent and how good that consistency is is what defines your level of play. Both France’s Hugo Lloris and England’s Joe Hart are as consistently good as anyone else who wears the gloves.
It was not too long ago Lloris was considered one of the game's very best and brightest. The decline of Lyon over recent years has kind of seen him drop out of that spotlight a bit, but at no fault of his own. Oftentimes a goalie is judged as much on what their team does as what they do. He still is a top keeper, no matter what the record shows.
Hart has emerged from being a possible English keeper to one of the best in the game. Not enough can be said about his agility in net, which helped lead Manchester City to their first English titles in decades. He is a textbook product of trained positioning and instinctive reactions.
It would really not be inconceivable to see a stalemate between both sides in terms of possession and flow of the game. What it could all come down to is who has the keeper that can get that little extra push off the dive and reach the ball or who makes the better judgment on the cross and punches it out.
Those kind of minuscule things are not recorded on the stat sheet, but it could make all the difference in the stat that matters most.
Being the English manager sucks. You are always compared to the manager you are facing, and even though that manager may not be as successful or tenured, they don’t have to deal with some of the worst tabloids and scandals that a manager of the Three Lions has to.
In the case of this game, Hodgson is more or less equal to Blanc in terms of managerial accomplishments, but pales in comparison with familiarity with the team. Let’s not forget, Hodgson took over about five weeks ago and his first big act was naming the 23-man roster.
Compare that to Blanc, who has been around for close to two years now and knows his players inside and out.
I have always believed that the job description for a head coach can be explained very simply: put your players in the best possible position to perform at their best. Blanc already knows what that is for this group, but the question is whether or not Hodgson has been with the English players long enough to know them.
I do not think there is as much a tactical battle going on here as most would assume between coaches. Neither side is known for possessing a great amount of technical gifts or extremely organized play. It is more about which superstars can play their best and how many role players will step up.
Whichever manager puts his players in the best position to do so will have the edge here.
Let’s stop being that guy who loves football no matter what and be real: Who cares about the first day of Euros? It has to be one of the most unspectacular openings to a major tournament that the game has ever seen. But that’s what happens when the arguably the best player playing on opening day is a goalie.
But Monday, we will be treated to quite the show with France and England.
The matchups I mentioned above are the ones I will be paying closest attention to, but they're hardly the only things of interest. Will Ashley Young be able to create chances on the counter? Can Steven Gerrard dominate the middle? Is Florent Malouda going to factor in?
What matchups will you be paying close attention to?
As always, please leave your comments below and thanks for reading!
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