Euro 2012: hope springs eternal as England face France
Temperatures may be sky-high and expectations sub-zero, but is the nation finds hope in determination
THE DAY has finally arrived. Two years after their humiliation at the World Cup, England return to major tournament football today with expectations at an all time low as they face France in their Euro 2012 opener.
The contrast in fortunes for these two teams since 2010 could hardly be starker. Like England, France endured a nightmarish World Cup in which they scored just one goal, finished bottom of their group and were ripped apart by a player mutiny. But under the guidance of Laurent Blanc they have re-emerged as a dominant footballing force, unbeaten in 21 games. England, on the other hand, depleted by injury and shaken by a change of manager, have a squad widely regarded as their weakest ever to appear at a tournament finals.
And yet, on the eve of battle, a funny kind of optimism has finally crept into the country. With expectations so low, there is a sense that maybe, just maybe, can England finally shrug off the burden of history and shine at a tournament for the first time since 1996.
The Sun has certainly got in the mood. With trademark cheekiness, the paper beamed the St George's flag onto the Eiffel Tower, and carries the photo on today's front page under the headline "Show 'em no merci". And the redtop is not alone in sensing a potential upset.
Following England captain Steven Gerrard's (pictured) insistence that working "collectively" is the key to victory, The Daily Telegraph's Paul Hayward finds hope in last season's results. "Heart, spirit, defiance are all in vogue," he writes. "Superior artistry has failed in big games this year for Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Holland - and England need it to bounce off a wall again in the heat of Ukraine."
According to reports, Roy Hodgson has focused on doing just that in training, drilling Gerrard and his central midfield partner Scott Parker to provide cover for the defensive pairing of John Terry and Joleon Lescott. Other likely starters for today's match include Stewart Downing and James Milner on the wings, with Ashley Young dropping behind Danny Welbeck up front.
One of the issues for tonight's match is the heat - the temperature in Ukraine could still be over 30 degrees at kick off. "In the list of excuses for competition failure, a lovely warm day ranks pretty high," writes Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail. "England's footballers are like Goldilocks. This one's too hot, that one's too cold; they never get a tournament that is just right."
Even with the heat, England have got the endorsement of one renowned manager: Rafael Benitez. "Everybody is talking, saying England are not good enough," he writes in The Independent. "But I don't understand this.
"I think tonight's game against France in Donetsk is one that both teams can win," he continues, before adding: "England seem to need confidence and if they do beat France it could be that they do not look back."