RELIEVED England manager Roy Hodgson believes his team have cleared their biggest hurdle after opening their European Championship campaign with an encouraging draw against Group D favourites France last night.
Hodgson’s men looked on course for victory in his first competitive match in charge when defender Joleon Lescott headed home Steven Gerrard’s teasing right-wing free-kick after 30 minutes.
Manchester City star Samir Nasri’s equaliser just before the break denied England maximum points and the perfect start, but it was England who finished a cagey encounter in Donetsk taking greater heart from the result.
“This gives us a good platform,” said Hodgson. “France are one of the favourites in the group. They had gone 21 games unbeaten before today and people were tipping them to be potential winners of the tournament. We can’t deny on paper they might be the hardest game, but I’ve got a lot of respect for Sweden and Ukraine.
“I’ve got to be very proud of that performance. Maybe that final ball needs to improve and we were a bit anxious in the final third. But there were good signs of a team wanting to do well.”
Hodgson singled out Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, after the 18-year-old – the second youngest Englishman to play in a European Championship – justified a surprise start with a dynamic display on the left of midfield.
“He did quite well, he was dangerous,” the former Liverpool boss added. “He has to be happy with his performance, but it was a great team performance. Everyone did their best to keep us in the game. Two or three times he skipped past players.”
England arrived at this tournament with expectations low due to a turbulent year and big-name absentees including Wayne Rooney but, a low Nasri shot that would prove a warning of dangers to come aside, looked fluent and threatening in the opening exchanges.
Midfielder James Milner ought to have put them ahead after 15 minutes but missed the gaping net after rounding goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, yet Lescott made amends when he met Gerrard’s irresistible curling set piece.
France were roused, and combative midfielder Alou Diarra forced a reflex save from Joe Hart with a bullet header before Nasri beat his club colleague with a low drive from 20 yards that Gerrard and Scott Parker failed to block.
Striker Karim Benzema twice tested Hart from distance in the second half as England’s gradual retreat illustrating their contentment at escaping this fixture with a draw.