Alou Diarra has big role to play against England
Brought to the European Championship to sit on the substitutes' bench, Alou Diarra will be handed a crucial starting role in France's opener against England on Monday.
The central midfielder was meant to be a backup to Yann M'Vila at Euro 2012. But an ankle injury for Laurent Blanc's first choice means Diarra will be in the starting lineup at the Group D match in Donetsk.
Diarra has been around for a long time, without ever nailing down a spot in the team. However, as Blanc's only fit defensive midfielder France needs him.
Diarra is relishing taking on England's Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard in a midfield scrap that could be decisive for the outcome of the game.
''We've known about Steven Gerrard for a long time now and Scott Parker's got better season after season,'' Diarra said. ''Parker's playing for Tottenham now and he's one of the best players around in his position. England's players are very aggressive, but in the good sense of the word and we have to be wary of them.''
Diarra has been troubled with a small injury of his own, a sore tendon behind his right knee since the match against Estonia on Tuesday. But he is confident he will be fully operational against England.
''By tomorrow all the pain will be gone,'' Diarra said. ''I've always played flat out, no matter what the circumstances. It doesn't change anything about the way I play, even if I'm the only fit defensive midfielder we have.''
France has a team bristling with skill and attacking menace, but Diarra is under no illusions as to what's expected of him.
''My job is to win the ball, slow down the play, break up attacks and to protect my defense,'' he said. ''It's an unrewarding role but it's a useful one.''
M'Vila's absence also presents Blanc with another headache.
Diarra has hardly played alongside Yohan Cabaye, who will be on the right side of France's flat three-man midfield, with Florent Malouda on the left.
Even though Diarra and Malouda go back years together in the French team, Diarra admits ''I've always known Flo as a wide player'' and is unused to being beside him.
''We will have to talk an enormous amount with each other on the field, as the three of us don't have that much experience playing together,'' Diarra said. ''England are a dynamic team with very quick players up front.''
He is unsure whether it's the sprightly Danny Welbeck or the bustling Andy Carroll who poses the biggest threat.
''Welbeck makes more runs, and he has great movement,'' Diarra said. ''Carroll has more of a physical presence inside the penalty area, and he's very good in the air. They are both dangerous in their own way.''
France has not won the first match of a competition since beating England 2-1 at Euro 2004, and was eliminated from the group stage at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup.
Diarra admits the French have something of a mental block in opening games.
''We've always been a bit nervous in the first game of tournaments. We have to play with a bit more freedom and try and hurt the other team,'' he said. ''In the last two tournaments, we suffered a bit.''
The Marseille midfielder, who had a tough domestic season, is set to win his 42nd cap and is one of only three players in France's young team to have played in three major competitions or more. Malouda and winger Franck Ribery have played in four.
''For some players it will be a bit of an apprenticeship, but we still have players like Malouda, so I'm not the only one,'' he said. ''Getting past the first round will be a success for us.''