France v England, June 11, 5pm
11 June ~ France go into today's match with England high in confidence after three victories against Estonia, Iceland and Serbia. They managed some great fluid attacking football with Franck Ribéry and Karim Benzema both on song and goalscoring form. More importantly, the French team showed signs of cohesion and team spirit rarely seen during the qualification campaign. Or more accurately, rarely seen since the World Cup in 2006. The match against England was referred to regularly by TV co-commentators Bixente Lizarazu and Arsène Wenger during the build-up.
In the first game against Iceland, Lizarazu complained of France’s lack of combativeness and said that this would be punished against a direct and aggressive English team. But he exalted: "This is what we need against England!" as Alou Diarra nearly decapitated an Icelandic player with an elbow during an aerial duel.
In a more tactical frame of mind, Wenger warned that today's match will be a clash of styles, with Hodgson sticking to the "very British" 4-4-2. France will have a lot of possession, he said, but will have to break down England's double line of defence. One radio commentator warned that it is going to be Chelsea-Bayern Munich all over again.
By the end of the 4-0 victory against Estonia, Lizarazu remained worried about France's central-defensive partnership of Adil Rami and Philippe Mexès, stressing that Andy Carroll and Danny Welbeck will be more difficult to handle than Tarmo Kink. Poor Mexès is also suffering from the public scrutiny of his waistline as Laurent Blanc confessed that they are working on his "weight problem" in Friday's press conference.
France's main concern may not be Carroll running rings round Méxès (it's a long way round) but winning back the French fans. No media preview of the Euros has been complete without mention of the K-word: Knysna, the South African town in which the French team refused to get off the team bus to attend training during the 2010 World Cup.
The recurring theme is that the French team want to be forgiven for this incident, an "international disgrace" according to the Figaro newspaper. But the media overestimate this one event in the French team's decline in public opinion. It was pathetic, but the French team were only rebelling against an autocratic leader who had obviously lost the plot. They had the courage to do so before the football federation and the toady media.
The alienation of French fans from their football team probably had a lot more to do with their exasperating playboy lifestyles, involvement with underage prostitutes, outrageous bonus payments and the luxury hotel they occupied in South Africa. That, and the fact that they were simply rubbish.
Lizarazu, and the generation of 1998, should know this better than anyone: only a successful French football team will be a popular one in France. Beat England today and the past will be quickly forgotten. The players have the capacity to get a result and even Michel Platini, who you would expect to show more neutrality, thinks "they will be a force to be reckoned with." Although he did add: "As long as they get off the bus." Neil McCarthy