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Euro 2012

Moment of truth for England as France wait

KRAKOW, Poland, June 9 – England and France launch their respective quests for major tournament redemption on Monday in a high-stakes Group D collision that neither side can afford to lose.

Two years ago, England and France departed the World Cup in South Africa in disgrace after a series of abysmal performances that saw both teams making painfully early exits from the competition.

England were sent packing 4-1 by Germany in the last 16, while France’s players triggered a national inquiry after a first-round elimination which followed Les Bleus’ notorious training ground mutiny.

Since the nadir of South Africa, France have regrouped impressively, finding a greater sense of unity and cohesion under the guidance of coach Laurent Blanc, who replaced the hapless Raymond Domenech.

Blanc has overseen a resurgence in French fortunes since taking over, lifting them from the low of 27th in the FIFA rankings in 2010 to 14th.

More impressively, the French have arrived at the Euros with the look of a team that is hitting form at the right time.

A fluid 4-0 demolition of Estonia on Monday stretched France’s unbeaten streak to 21 games, a run that includes 15 wins and only six draws, while their victims have included Brazil, Germany — and England.

Blanc also has few selectorial issues to resolve, with only an ankle injury to Yann M’Vila giving him a headache ahead of Monday’s opener at the Donbass Arena in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk.

Alou Diarra is expected to deputise for M’Vila as France line-up in a familiar 4-3-3 which will be spearheaded by the attacking triumvirate of Samir Nasri, Karim Benzema and Franck Ribery.

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France comprehensively outplayed an under-strength England in a 2-1 friendly victory at Wembley in November 2010, but Blanc has sounded a note of caution heading into Monday’s meeting.

“It’s all well and good to say they’re weakened, but what concerns me is that England will play in a certain manner, based on their qualities and their philosophy,” Blanc said.

“They’ll give everything because when the French are against the English, it raises the stakes. We’ll have to be strong. It will be difficult.”

Yet while France have enjoyed a steady resurgence since South Africa, England by contrast have spent two years lurching fitfully from one crisis to the next.

A chaotic build-up saw John Terry stripped of the captaincy, which in turn prompted the resignation of manager Fabio Capello in February.

The last-minute appointment of Roy Hodgson left many to conclude that England’s Euro 2012 campaign has been holed beneath the waterline before a ball has been kicked, a feeling made more acute by a slew of injuries that have seen Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry and Gary Cahill withdraw in the past fortnight.

Throw in the suspension which means Wayne Rooney is unavailable for the opening two games, as well as the long-term injury to Jack Wilshere, and the odds of Hodgson and England enjoying a successful tournament appear even longer.

Although Hodgson refutes the suggestion that his priority has been making England a difficult side to beat, there seems little doubt that he is honing a gameplan based on counter-attack.

To that end, he is expected to favour the pacy Manchester United striker Danny Welbeck in attack, with Ashley Young in a withdrawn role.

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Width is likely to be provided by James Milner and Stewart Downing while Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker are paired in central midfield.

England’s players meanwhile are unimpressed by the suggestion that the low expectations surrounding the squad will work in their favour.

“We’re not here thinking ‘People won’t mind if we lose, we can go home and go on holiday and no-one will care’,” England goalkeeper Joe Hart said. “We have high expectations otherwise there’s no point in us being here.”

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