England a tough nut to crack

First blood: Joleon Lescott gives England the lead in their first Euro 2012 Group D match against France in Donetsk.                                                     PICTURES: Anthony Devlin/PA
First blood: Joleon Lescott gives England the lead in their first Euro 2012 Group D match against France in Donetsk. PICTURES: Anthony Devlin/PA
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England 1 France 1

That will do for starters.

Okay, there was not a great deal of magic on show in England’s 1-1 draw against France in Group D of the European Championship.

But in a nervy, tense, cagey affair in Donetsk Roy Hodgson’s side showed they could be a work in progress in this tournament.

A work of pragmatism and determination. A work of heart and desire rather than a work of art maybe, but also perhaps a bunch of workmanlike players with enough quality to go further than many critics forecast.

Remember, France were some experts’ favourites to go all the way at Euro 2012, although on this showing they do not possess enough flair or penetration. They have a busy, tidy playmaker in Samir Nasri and a sharp front man in Karim Benzema but they do not have a Zinedine Zidane.

What England do have is a captain in Steven Gerrard who led, as so often he does for Liverpool, by stirring example.

Gerrard was the organiser, the inspirer, the last-ditch defender and the man England continually looked to, especially when they began to wilt in the heat in the latter stages.

Yet this is a good start for England, no doubt about that.

Hodgson’s side were compact and controlled but it wasn’t just a job of containment. There was a spark of creativity too.

From Ashley Young playing in the hole behind striker Danny Welbeck. From the impressive Ashley Cole and the obdurate Scott Parker too and from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who did nothing special except look perfectly at ease at 18 in his third international. Indeed, the manager had announced his intentions on the teamsheet when it contained the name of Oxlade-Chamberlain. It was a bold move. Brave and decisive.

Hodgson’s first instincts might be for organisation and caution but naming Oxlade-Chamberlain showed he realised England require a measure of unpredictability too, to progress through Group D and into the quarter-finals.

Oxlade-Chamberlain has pace and trickery and Hodgson should be applauded for taking a gamble on his inexperience.

“He gives us balance,” Hodgson had said and with James Milner industrious on the right there was a pleasing positivity about England.

They controlled much of the action and should have taken the lead as early as the 14th minute when Milner rounded the goalkeeper but slid his shot wide.

It gave England belief and there was so much to encourage, especially when they took the lead when Joleon Lescott headed home Gerrard’s swinging cross after half an hour.

There has been so much talk about England’s centre backs with Gary Cahill being injured and the Rio Ferdinand saga, but the truth is England are blessed with an array of defensive talent, all of whom are dangerous at set-pieces.

Lescott is like the rest. He rarely lets down his manager.

The disappointment was that England did not build on that early advantage. They sat back in layers of defensive lines as favoured by Hodgson. It is a dangerous tactic against quality opposition such as France, who had conceded just four goals in qualifying and had gone 21 games unbeaten as new boss Laurent Blanc tried to erase the memory of the shambles under Raymond Domenech at the World Cup two years ago.

Inevitably, France’s possession eventually paid off, Manchester City’s Nasri thumping a right-foot shot past goalkeeper Joe Hart at his near post from 20 yards.

Should Hart have saved it? He will think so but the truth is it was a quality strike from a quality player. The really encouraging thing from England, however, was that they weathered the French pressure. They retained their composure even when Nasri and Franck Ribery began to find holes. No, England are not pretty to watch. They do not produce sumptuous patterns and treasure the ball like Spain. They do not possess the the vibrancy of Germany or the individual brilliance Russia demonstrated in their first match.

But considering the manager has been in the job just 40 days, has lost four key players to injury, has been distracted with the row surrounding Ferdinand and has Wayne Rooney suspended for the opening two games, he has made a pretty good fist of producing an England side with desire and discipline.

So a point against France is gratefully accepted. Bigger challenges lie ahead.

The point future opponents will have taken is that England under Hodgson are a tough nut to crack.