Laurent Blanc is not buying it for a second. As if he did not have enough on his plate already, the France coach found himself in the unusual position of trying to raise English morale on Sunday, reassuring England’s more sceptical followers that their team will pose Les Bleus real problems in their Group D opener.
It is rare that an England squad travels to a major tournament with expectation levels low back at home, but a growing mood of fatalism has clearly taken hold. Without a manager for nearly three months until Roy Hodgson’s appointment on 1 May, England have lost Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry, Gary Cahill and John Ruddy to injury since announcing their squad – and all that after learning star striker Wayne Rooney would miss their first two matches through suspension.
If the plan has been to lull France into a false sense of security, though, it has not worked. “We’ve had our own problems too,” Blanc explained. “Don’t worry, the English will show up ready for us. They always want to win and even more so against the French. We have to forget everything that’s happened before.”
The list of past events in that particular category includes the last meeting between the two teams at this level, when a pair of Zinédine Zidane goals in added time gave France a remarkable 2-1 victory in their first outing at UEFA EURO 2004. England have not got the better of their old rivals since 1997 and their last competitive success dates back 30 years, but Blanc expects Hodgson’s side to be doughty opponents.
“England are very strong in the tackle and very committed,” he said. “I saw their two warm-up games [against Norway and Belgium] and if they play the same way, they’ll play very deep, with two banks of four and looking to counter. We’ll have to make sure not to leave too much space and get caught out, because Steven Gerrard is a very good passer.”
Having hinted that injury doubts Yann M’Vila (ankle) and Blaise Matuidi (thigh) will start on the bench, the former defender – whose last experience of a UEFA European Championship was lifting the trophy 12 years ago – also denied that his team were favourites in a group featuring Sweden and co-hosts Ukraine too. What is certain, though, is that England are wary of the threat they pose going forward. “It’s obvious that in attacking areas they have a lot of quality players who can win matches off their own back,” said Hodgson.
The 64-year-old nonetheless has plenty of faith in his own charges, whom he credited with “[making] it easy for me to get my feet under the table” since taking charge. “We have a team of players that are major stars in the Premier League, which is widely regarded as a top league and I see them play to the best of their ability every week. I hope they can replicate that form when we get on the field for France and the matches that follow,” he said. Despite his words of encouragement, Blanc probably does not hope likewise.