France, England renew rivalry in Group D at Euro 2012

England and France will resume their long-standing football rivalry at next month's European Championship, with no one knowing exactly what to expect from the traditional powers.

Updated: May 25, 2012 18:44 IST
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London: England and France will resume their long-standing football rivalry at next month's European Championship, with no one knowing exactly what to expect from the traditional powers.

England enter the tournament with a new coach and with striker Wayne Rooney suspended for the first two group games. France have been an enigma for years and are still trying to recover from two disastrous major tournaments, but are enjoying a recent resurgence under coach Laurent Blanc.

Add two more unpredictable teams to the mix — Sweden and co-hosts Ukraine — and it's hard to see any clear favourites in Group D.

In fact, all four teams seem to be downplaying their chances of advancing.

"We're a young team lacking in experience, so we're not favourite in the group," France midfielder Samir Nasri said. "France hasn't played well in an international competition since 2006."

Neither has England, which missed Euro 2008 and was eliminated in the second round by Germany at the 2010 World Cup. It impressed at times during qualifying for this year's tournament, only to see coach Fabio Capello quit abruptly over a decision by his bosses at the Football Association to strip John Terry of the captaincy after he was accused of racially abusing an opponent.

His replacement, Roy Hodgson, only took over in May, and was also quick to try to lower expectations in a country that hasn't won a title since 1966 but still always seems to demand one.

"I'd like people to cut us a bit of slack in that respect," Hodgson said. "The resignation of Fabio Capello has made the situation somewhat different."

Sweden and Ukraine, meanwhile, have shown in the past that they should not be underestimated.

Sweden reached the second round of the 2002 and 2006 World Cups as well as Euro 2004, while Ukraine made it to the quarter-finals in Germany in 2006.

Sweden also have Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front, who can be a threat to any team. Ukraine may be the weakest team in the group on paper but will be boosted by the crowd support from playing at home.

That's something Sweden coach Erik Hamren is extra wary of as his team faces Ukraine in the first game, where both teams need a win to have a realistic chance of advancing.

"By tradition, the team that's the host nation is incredibly hard to beat in the first game," Hamren said. "They'll have enormous support. We have three tough opponents, not just England and France. We can play three great games and still not advance from the group."

Ukraine will again be relying on veteran striker Andriy Shevchenko for leadership and goals, and assistant coach Andriy Bal said the team's fate will not necessarily be decided in the first game.

"There are lots of examples where a team lost the first game, but then performed well," Bal said. "Look at the last World Cup. Switzerland won 1-0 against Spain, and Spain became world champion. Football is very unpredictable."

Group D will be the last to start play on June 11, with France playing England in Donetsk before Ukraine host Sweden in Kiev.

Outside the host nation, most of the focus will probably be on the first game.

France and England are two of football's traditional rivals, but also two of the biggest question marks in this tournament.

French fans are probably still wondering whether this team will more resemble the ones that won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 and reached the 2006 World Cup final — or the ones that didn't win a single game at either Euro 2008 or the 2010 World Cup, where the squad imploded among infighting and even went on strike.

This time, it certainly has the star power to go far, with striker Karim Benzema, winger Franck Ribery and Nasri all showing good form for their clubs this season.

"Things went badly wrong in 2008, we went out in the first round, and the same in 2010," Nasri said. "We all have some revenge to take, to show that we can repeat our club form with the national team."

The same holds true for England, which is filled with players who are stars at their clubs but have often come up short in international tournaments. And with the biggest name — Rooney — suspended for two games, Hodgson has stressed that England can't rely on individual performances this time.

"We have to find that unity," Hodgson said. "The only way we're going to win anything is as a team, and we have to accept that."

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