France wary of injury-hit England
DONETSK, Ukraine - France's players are bracing themselves for a rough ride against England in their European Championship opener on Monday, despite their run of victories against an old rival that is struggling to cope with a string of absentees.
Whatever team England fields, France coach Laurent Blanc fully expects a hard time in the Group D game in Donetsk.
England is depleted and missing key striker Wayne Rooney because of suspension, but the team still has one major weapon: the anxiety it can generate in the minds of the French.
Even though the momentum is with France on the back of a 21-match unbeaten run, and the fact that Les Bleus have not lost to England since 1997, Blanc remains very wary.
''When the French face the English, that always raises the stakes,'' he said. ''Whatever you say about the players they're missing, it will be a difficult match for us. We're sure about that.''
Besides Rooney, England is without central defender Gary Cahill and midfielders Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry through injury.
''England will turn up on the day, don't worry about that,'' said Blanc, who made the last of his 97 international appearances against England in a 1-1 draw in 2000. ''The English, playing their first game against France ... I can tell you it will be intense.''
He thinks Roy Hodgson's team still has enough talent to hurt France.
''Are you telling me (captain Steven) Gerrard isn't a good player? (Danny) Welbeck isn't? Ashley Young isn't? (James) Milner isn't? I could go on,'' he said. ''Maybe that's the role of English press, to dramatize all the injuries, but they still have a competitive team.
''They have a generation that wants to do well, because (some) players are approaching the end of their careers,'' Blanc added. ''They still have good players, despite the injuries and Rooney being out. In games like that, big players always stand up to be counted.''
The rivalry dates back to 1923, when England won 4-1 in Paris and then won the next five games, scoring 21 more goals. -
But France has won four of their last five meetings, including a 2-1 win at Euro 2004. England dominated that game for long spells but Zinedine Zidane broke their hearts with two late goals.
England's playing style has traditionally been seen as direct, physical, rarely aesthetic and not always effective.
And while former coach Fabio Capello tried to instil a more methodical approach during his time in charge of England, Blanc thinks Hodgson may revert to a straightforward style - with Andy Carroll as a bustling target man in the absence of Rooney.
''What worries us is that England will play a certain style of football. We know they'll play to their strengths, and I can tell you they'll give everything,'' Blanc said.
Blanc has expressed his surprise at England's refusal to select center half Rio Ferdinand, especially after Cahill's recent injury.
Hodgson said Ferdinand was left out of the initial 23-man squad for ''football reasons'' and not over concerns he couldn't play with John Terry, who is facing trial for allegedly racially abusing Ferdinand's brother, Anton, the Queens Park Rangers defender.
The exclusion of Ferdinand has dominated headlines in the English media.
''Maybe they're in a bit of a turbulent spell, but that can also bring them closer together,'' Blanc said.