FOR Newcastle United supporters, Group D presents a club-versus-country dilemma. Patriotism will pull them towards England, but their opening-game opponents France will be the side with Magpies in their ranks in Donetsk on Monday.
Their extraordinary season, finishing fifth in the Premier League, was not enough to take any Newcastle players into England’s squad. There will be a few familiar faces in Scott Parker, Andy Carroll and James Milner, though only Parker looks guaranteed to start. Sunderland-born Jordan Henderson, and Middlesbrough products Stewart Downing and Adam Johnson provide vague local interest along with Danny Welbeck, loaned to Sunderland in 2010-11.
Newcastle’s odds-defying campaign was built largely on Gallic flair. Yohan Cabaye is the creative heartbeat of Laurent Blanc’s France and while Hatem Ben Arfa is likely to be reduced to the role of impact substitute, he seems certain to be at the forefront of the former Manchester United and Barcelona defender’s mind if things need to be changed.
There could also be a glimpse to the future. Alan Pardew is known to be considering making Mathieu Debuchy, France’s right-back in the absence of Bacary Sagna, one of Newcastle’s summer signings.
To viewers of the Premier and Champions Leagues, Les Bleus will hold few surprises. Not for the first time – unbeaten qualifying campaigns in 1992 and 1996 spring to mind – they will come in with formidable form behind them.
Since the national disgrace of the last World Cup, where petty factions tore the squad apart, they head for Poland and Ukraine on the back of 22 matches undefeated – despite two of the quartet banned for their South African indiscretions still being in place. Blanc lost his first competitive game, at home to Belarus, and has not been beaten once since.
More relevant for England was the way France tamed the Three Lions during a Wembley friendly in November 2010. Peter Crouch’s late goal produced a deceptive 2-1 scoreline, but the hosts had been outclassed. While France have been able to develop from there, England had to start again a matter of weeks ago.
A training-ground comment from new manager Roy Hodgson’s first open session may signal a team trying to go back to the future. “Don’t be afraid to knock it up to the big man,” was reminiscent of Graham Taylor’s “Can we not knock it?” in 1993.
It suggested a return to the caveman football which served England so badly at Euro 92, where they finished bottom of the group after a 0-0 draw with France and a defeat by the hosts (Sweden then, Ukraine now) in their last game. Hopefully not, but the preference for grafters like Gareth Barry (since withdrawn) over passers such as Wallsend-born Michael Carrick suggests the lessons of previous tournaments have been overlooked.
The “English disease” has already handicapped them in this tournament. The closest thing they have to a world-class player is suspended for the first two games for stamping on Montenegro’s Miodrag Dzudovic in the qualifiers. Such petulance tends to come to the boil when Wayne Rooney is starved of possession as a lone (or alone) centre-forward.
The choice between Carroll and Welbeck may be a key indicator of which direction Hodgson’s England set off in. Welbeck is a linkman for a footballing team, Carroll an ideal targetman for a direct one. Welbeck’s finishing is not international standard but beggars cannot be choosers. Any country forced to call up Liverpool’s second-choice right-back, Martin Kelly, after a seemingly never-ending cast of egos too big to be on standby rejected Hodgson’s advances are definitely beggars.
Barry, Gary Cahill, Frank Lampard, John Ruddy, Jack Wilshere, Jack Rodwell, Darren Bent, Kyle Walker and Chris Smalling are all injured.
Others, such as Parker and Glen Johnson, appear fatigued or patched-up. The politicised debate over Rio Ferdinand’s repeated non-selection tended to overlook one crucial factor – he hardly ever played twice a week last season.
Ukraine have problems too, ten players reportedly suffering stomach upsets this week. Anatoliy Tymoshchuk is on a drip.
Four coaches in two years, bribery scandals and in-fighting have handicapped them, but the most alarming problems are in goal. England, with the relatively unknown Jack Butland among their trio of shot-stoppers, have an embarrassment of riches by comparison.
With Oleksandr Rybka suspended for using a banned diuretic, injuries to Andriy Dikan (face) and Oleksandr Shovkovskiy (shoulder) were perhaps inevitable.
Oleksandr Bandura had not played international football at any level when he was called into the preliminary squad for the finals, and Maxym Koval’s experience extended to one training camp. Thirty-four year-old Oleksandr Goryainov had one cap when he got the call.
Host status and Andriy Shevchenko’s last hurrah are factors to cling to, but the friendlies have hardly inspired confidence and if England need a result to qualify, they will not be the worst opponents.
Sweden will be Sweden, experienced and organised. One thing has changed, their 43-year hoodoo over England broke last November. This is also a side with more focus on flair than usual. Sunderland’s Sebastian Larsson will supply the bullets for Johan Elmander in a front three which also features Ola Toivonen and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.