France vs. England Euro 2012 Preview: 2 Key Players to Watch for Each Team
England begin their UEFA Euro 2012 campaign in Donetsk tomorrow with a crunch encounter against a highly-touted France team. Although Roy Hodgson's squad has been ravaged by injury, the Three Lions are still capable of springing what would be considered an upset.
Hodgson may have been many people's second choice behind Harry Redknapp, but the veteran coach has international tournament experience and a wealth of tactical expertise. Hodgson's adherence to a 4-4-2 formation will be a welcome sight with so many others choosing the stifling 4-2-3-1.
French boss Laurent Blanc has reinvented the national team and will be hoping his young charges can overcome the injury-enforced absence of Rennes midfielder Yann M'Vila.
Here are two key players to watch for each team:
Alou Diarra, Defensive Midfielder, France
Marseille mauler Alou Diarra will likely step in for M'Vila as one of two holding midfielders in the French tactical structure. Why France need two defensive midfield players against an England team without the suspended Wayne Rooney is a puzzling issue.
However, Blanc favours dual cover in front of the back four, and Diarra has a key role to play. His physicality and sound positional sense can curtail the midfield runs of England skipper Steven Gerrard.
Ashley Young, Forward, England
While Gerrard is an obvious threat to the French, one of Diarra's main tasks will be to track the movement of pacey supporting forward Ashley Young. Perhaps the most encouraging thing Hodgson has done since taking charge has been to reject the idea of wasting Young on the wing and instead giving him a free, central role, just off the main striker.
It's clearly the best position for the Manchester United star, and Young represents England's most likely scoring outlet. His range of movement and powerful, accurate shot should make him a consistent threat to the French defense.
Florent Malouda, Attacking Midfielder, France
In recent friendlies, Florent Malouda has occupied a central role to devastating effect. The ultra-talented Chelsea veteran is intelligent and technically gifted enough to be the main source of creativity for the French.
England would be wise to deny Malouda shooting opportunities. They must also work hard to cut off any quick, one-touch passes between Malouda and sole striker Karim Benzema.
Joleon Lescott, Central Defender, England
If Manchester City's Joleon Lescott gets the nod to start in place of the injured Gary Cahill, he will need to avoid the lapses in concentration and errors which have plagued his game. Lescott has impressed at times this season, but much of that is due to playing alongside the superb Vincent Kompany for the Citizens.
Although Lescott is a physically imposing athlete, this author believes Everton's Phil Jagielka would be the better choice. Lescott's awareness is questionable and he occasionally takes too many chances in possession. He will need to rely on his strength to get the better of Benzema and must resist being drawn out of the middle too easily.
Despite being widely considered too undermanned to handle the French, Hodgson's England has the pace in key areas to pull off an upset. While France have impressed in the build up to the tournament, their reputation still seems more about name value, rather than consistent quality play.
However, England often begin tournaments slowly and as the match progresses, their lack of options in midfield may begin to tell.
Expect a tough game to end in a 1-1 stalemate.
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