England & France Highlight Group D Openers

By: Bruce Marshall | Thursday, June 7, 2012

The first cycle of Euro 2012 group play concludes on Monday when the “D” quartet debuts in Donetsk and Kiev in the Ukraine, with the co-hosts kick-starting their drive against Sweden.

More worldwide focus, however, will focus upon a tasty opening match on Monday featuring good ’ol England against France.  These two last met internationally in a famous first-round game at Euro 2004, when Les Bleus rallied late for a 2-1 win.  England subsequently missed Euro 2008, denying all a chance at entertainment and inevitable off-field controversies.

No worries regarding all of that, however, as France more than made up for whatever we missed with England four years ago with a well-publicized mutiny at World Cup 2010 in South Africa.  It seems fitting that these two should meet in their first Euro 2012 matches.

We’ll be providing further updates on first-round group play as action proceeds into next week in Poland and Ukraine. For now, however, we take a look at Monday’s initial Group D matchups.

England vs. France (at Donetsk)
Two years ago, when World Cup 2010 was winding down, it would have been hard to project a scenario in which the French might be the more stable side than the English. Yet, as we enter Euro 2012, it is Les Bleus listed as the slight favorites to win Group D, with realistic English backers acknowledging that their side would do well just to make the knockout phase.

European oddsmakers are hinting that France should win this quartet, too, and have priced Les Bleus as 7/5 favorites on the win in this match at Donbass Arena.  The take-back on England is 11/5, with draw prices hovering around 21/10.  Note that 2½-goal total is shaded strongly to the ‘under’ at 1/2.  Kickoff time on Monday will be 12 noon (ET), with TV coverage in the states provided by ESPN.

Of course, mention of England in the first round would not be complete if not reminding all that Man United’s Wayne Rooney is suspended for this France match as well as the ensuing encounter vs. Sweden.  This being the payment for Rooney’s disqualification in the final group qualifier last October vs. Montenegro.

The question thus arises for the recently-hired England gaffer, veteran Roy Hodgson, about where England is going to find its goals with Rooney out of the lineup.  If they can’t answer, England could be out of the running even before Roo is eligible to return for the last group play match against co-host Ukraine in Kiev.

We suggest that Hodgson’s England will do no better than Fabio Capello’s recent England entries and will be lucky to do as well as Sven-Goran Eriksson’s England sides from a decade ago. Minus Rooney, by far the best goal-scoring threat on Hodgson’s side, England likely opts for either Liverpool’s Andy Carroll or Rooney’s Man U teammate Danny Welbeck, or both, as Hodgson breaks clear from Capello’s strict adherence to the 4-4-2 by making better use of the 4-2-3-1 alignment.  But neither are established international scoring weapons.

Indeed, while minus Rooney, we cannot be sure from where England’s goals will come.

Meanwhile, France are being tipped by a handful of aficionados to be one of the surprise packages in Poland and the Ukraine, thanks mainly to manager Laurent Blanc, the respected former international who quickly restored order in the French camp following the revolt against Raymond Domenech in South Africa two Junes ago.

Blanc has instilled more discipline and functionality within the squad while weeding out most of the troublemakers who caused problems at the last World Cup.

Blanc’s side is a versatile crew, with plenty of cover across the pitch.  The qualifying campaign was a bit bumpy, but in the end Les Bleus advanced as Group D winners and recently put together an 19-match unbeaten string, including friendlies.

Much of the story at Euro 2012 will involve squads able to stretch the pitch width-wise and attack from the wings.  Don’t be surprised if France’s Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribery emerges as a tourney MVP candidate, and for Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema, liberated from his normal caddying duties at the Bernabeu, to benefit greatly from Ribery and Chelsea’s Flourent Malouda providing support from the wings.  Either Man City’s Samir Nasri or Newcastle’s Yohan Cabaye provided the horsepower in the engine room.

A recent 4-0 win over Estonia suggests that France enters Euro 2012 on a roll. Decent price here to back Les Bleus on the win.

Sweden vs. Ukraine (at Kiev)
The co-hosts finally get their chance to be featured as the initial cycle of first-round games reaches its conclusion.

The home-field edge at the remodeled National Stadium, site of the final match on July 1, is a factor in European oddsmakers slightly favoring the Ukrainians, priced at 6/4 on the win, with the take-back on the Swedes at 2/1.  Draw prices are at 21/10 for the 2:45 p.m. (ET) kickoff, to be telecast in the states by big ESPN.

For Ukraine, however, the thought persists that it would have had a better chance as the host country during other periods of the last decade.  The Ukrainian side still relies on some oft he same components that were featured several years ago, with few young stars emerging into the national side from the youth program.

Moreover, it was a bumpy ride over the past couple of years for the Ukrainians, who went through a couple of coaches before finally settling upon former mentor Oleg Blokhin, who had led the national team between 2003-07.  Included in that span was a quarterfinal run at World Cup 2006 in France.

Still, however, Ukraine relies upon now 35-year-old striker Andriy Shevchenko to score goals, just as was the case six years ago.  Now back at Dynamo Kiev after long stints at AC Milan and Chelsea, the hope is that Shevchenko and his Dynamo strike partner, Artem Milevskyi, can recreate some of that domestic magic for the national side.

But Blokhin has spent much of the run-up to this event experimenting with different lineup combinations, using 41 players over one 10-match stretch.  A recent 2-0 loss to Turkey indicates there is still plenty of unsettling within the side.

The Swedes, never to be dismissed on the big stage, look a bit more menacing to us, especially since new coach Erik Hamren has decided upon a more adventurous approach, at least in comparison to pragmatic predecessor Lars Lagerback.

The national side is making an attempt to blood new talent into the side, and while that hasn’t quite worked as expected, there’s still enough of a seasoned veteran core (defenders Olaf Mellberg, midfielder Kim Kallstrom, striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic) that won’t be overcome by the moment in Poland and Ukraine.

Hamren’s Sweden prefers to play on the front foot in a 4-2-3-1, itself a departure from Lagerback’s staid 4-4-2, with bombing runs from fullbacks Mikael Lustig (Celtic) and Martin Olsson (Blackburn), although some suggest a more-measured approach will be deemed appropriate for these proceedings.

Nonetheless, we prefer Sweden’s forward-moving options, where wings Seb Larsson (Sunderland) and Rasmus Elm (Az Alkmaar) provide flair and support for the dual-striker combo of Ibrahimovic and Johan Elmander, with the former now employed in slightly withdrawn position on the frontline.  Elmander has recovered from a recent foot injury and has passed his fitness test and will almost surely be in the lineup for this match.

We’re not sure how much Ukraine can test Sweden’s PSV goalie Anders Isakkson, so we’re a bit bullish on the Swedes at this tasty 2/1 win price on Monday...road team or not.

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