The English kick off Euro 2012 against one of the teams they love to hate: France. Always in a jokey way, England’s sense of humor is one of its most robust characteristics. To use the common vernacular, they love to “dish it” and can also “take it back.”
Well, sometimes at least.
They grin, for example, when you mention penalty shootouts and Germany in the same sentence, because twice in big tournaments that combination has been their nemesis. Recently, Chelsea’s penalty triumph over Bayern Munich in last May’s Champions League final may have done a little to redress the psychological balance should the old foes meet again in this competition.
Germany is probably the team they like to beat most and the thirst for revenge is all the stronger since they lost 4-1 to Joachim Low’s men in the World Cup in South Africa, where England’s Frank Lampard had a clear goal disallowed at an important stage. Recall that football, at that time, would not allow technological aid in judging whether the ball was over the goal line.
But while awaiting the Germans – without Lampard, who is injured and, at 33, unlikely to figure in the national team again – England must begin their campaign against a French side whose preparations were handsomely rounded off with a 4-0 victory over Estonia, making it 21 qualifying and friendly games without defeat.
The French somehow contrived to have an even worse 2010 World Cup than England, displaying a poor attitude both on and off the field, but under Laurent Blanc they have rebuilt.
The man expected to threaten England most acutely in Donetsk on Monday is Karim Benzema, once a target for Manchester United but now a Spanish champion with Real Madrid. Benzema plays up front, and has the pace and power to trouble whoever the newly appointed England coach, Roy Hodgson, selects in central defense. The controversial John Terry, whom Hodgson favored over Rio Ferdinand in his squad announcement, is expected to declare himself recovered from a hamstring injury, though the quicker Joleon Lescott might be a more appropriate selection.
Who else can hurt England? Ask any defender in the Premier League and he would probably point to Hatem Ben Arfa, one of the stars who kept Newcastle United in Champions League contention until the conclusion of the last stages of the season. His speed restored after a horrific leg break last season, Ben Arfa exhibits tremendous elusiveness and cleverness with his delivery to the striker from the flanks. He can also chip in with the odd goal, usually from long range. England will be hoping that Blanc leaves him out to accommodate the more experienced Florent Malouda.
England are hardly as spoiled for choice in the attacking positions. Wayne Rooney is out after one serious lapse of discipline against Montenegro's Miodrag Dzudovic during Euro qualification. Rooney was fortunate that UEFA reduced its initial suspension of three matches to two on appeal. With Manchester United, Rooney’s behavior was exemplary, but he owes England a big performance as he is not available again until the Ukraine game. And by then, who knows?
If England reach the knockout stages, we shall see what Hodgson and his men can achieve. By then, Hodgson will have had five matches in charge. It remains to be seen if this will be enough time for the former Liverpool manager to drill a pattern of play for a team always expected to deliver in the international stage.
Although little more than 20 miles of sea channel separates England from France, its nearest neighbor on the European mainland, the English do seem very much an island race in terms of these keen sporting rivalries. Though the Scots, Welsh and Irish also inhabit the British Isles, they don’t have the same attitude towards anyone; not that the English mind an edge to their sporting conflict. Hodgson should have little difficulty in motivating them for Donetsk - even if coping with Benzema will be a little harder.