Paul Parker

Tournament debutants key to England’s hopes

Paul Parker

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England's Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young combined to score the winner against Belgium

Half of the England squad will be preparing for the game against France on Monday night as their first ever match at a major finals.

It's not just the likes of Danny Welbeck, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Andy Carroll getting ready for their first taste of action at a tournament - experienced players like Ashley Young, Joleon Lescott and Scott Parker are all at their first competition at this level too. Even Theo Walcott is yet to cross the white line and actually play in a finals, despite being picked for the World Cup squad in 2006.

The day of your first game of a tournament - especially if it's your first - is always the longest. More even than a cup final, just because the wait is so long and you are in unfamiliar surroundings.

Mentally you are torn because you know you need to spend time thinking about the opposition and tactics, but at the same time you just want to relax and take your mind off things. Some players handle it better than others. Hopefully the experience of manager Roy Hodgson, coach Gary Neville and the senior members of the squad will filter through to the players who are more likely to be suffering from nerves.

The pattern of play in the match is unlikely to be much of a surprise to anyone. Given the depth of France's attacking talent, and the fact that England were outpassed by both Norway and Belgium in their two warm-up games, it is certain that the French will have the majority of the possession in Donetsk.

England have rarely been a team able to dominate the play against decent opposition. The way Hodgson aims to have his teams organised in such regimented fashion just makes it more apparent.

England have always been most likely to score from dead-ball situations and crosses, and that is their best bet of hurting France.

Young's more central role in the absence of the suspended Wayne Rooney will be key. He has played well for England throughout qualifying, but facing a high-quality side in a must-win game will really show what he is made of. His pace and crossing ability from wide positions will be missed, so he must compensate by having a great influence in the middle in support of Manchester United team-mate Welbeck. Between the two of them, they must ensure England make the most of the opportunities that come their way, as they are likely to see far fewer than France.

Welbeck's work rate will also be vital. He will not have the luxury of just hanging on the shoulder of the last defender, waiting for the chance to latch on to one through ball after another. He will have to do his fair share of pressing and defensive work too. When England do attack, he must be alert to unexpected chances that crop up via second balls and mistakes as well as attacks England build themselves.

That may sound unambitious, but it is the most realistic way that England can defeat France, especially given their technical ability and the way Hodgson's teams play.

In defence, too, Lescott's influence will be key. If he had not been ruled out through injury, I would have loved to have seen Lescott and Gary Cahill start the tournament as England's central defensive partnership, but as it is John Terry will again be at the back.

Terry is a natural leader, but Lescott must make his presence felt too. The Chelsea man can be exposed for his lack of pace, and so he will want to defend as deep as he can. That will run the risk of allowing the likes of Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri and Franck Ribery far too much space in front of the England back four. Lescott has shown in Manchester City's title triumph and in England's friendly win over Spain that he is becoming the player many hoped he would back when he played for Everton and even Wolves.

England need their seasoned campaigners to deliver too, of course, but it is those more experienced players who have failed at finals over the years. It is the tournament debutants who hold the key to success.

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