England fall to French flair
© AFP

If the friendly match between England and France was a match between two European nations who flattered to deceive at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, then it was Laurent Blanc's side who seem to have made the greater strides since South Africa, judging by the showing at Wembley Stadium on Wednesday.

With the likes of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney all missing through injury, England’s line-up had an experimental air about it as Fabio Capello turned to the nation’s youth. The Tyne-Tees duo of Andy Carroll and Jordan Henderson were the highest profile debutants, but Arsenal’s Kieran Gibbs was also given his first start, while Everton centre-half Phil Jagielka found himself in an unfamiliar right-back berth.

France fielded a largely experienced side, with Rennes star Yann M’Vila continuing to carve out a place in the heart of Laurent Blanc’s midfield, with Florent Malouda on the left-hand side of a three-pronged attack.

The Three Lions started brightly. Steven Gerrard tested Hugo Lloris inside the first minute, striking from 30 yards after Carroll was fouled challenging for a high ball. The game followed a similar pattern in the opening minutes, with England looking to take advantage of Carroll’s height and willingness to run, while the French looked comfortable with the ball at their feet, with Samir Nasri controlling their play from midfield.

Florent Malouda was at the centre of France’s first meaningful attack, with the Chelsea star cutting in from the right and testing Ben Foster from 18 yards. Mathieu Valbuena ended a good spell of pressure by firing wildly over, before Malouda again carved out a half chance for himself which went well wide.

Yoann Gourcuff continued the early French dominance as his right-footed strike was palmed round the post by Foster. From then on, France began to exert more pressure, looking wholly more confident in possession than an England side struggling to find their rhythm. Indeed, it wasn’t long before the visitors found a breakthrough after 16 minutes.

Malouda was allowed time to control a cross on the edge of England’s penalty area, before a neat exchange with Karim Benzema saw the Real Madrid forward clear of the backline, before beating Foster with a confident low strike at his near post.

Gerrard, playing just behind Carroll, was the fulcrum of all the home side’s early play, but was finding it tough to infiltrate an organised French defence and escape the attentions of his marker M’Vila.

Another French slick passing move, this time between Benzema and Nasri, saw the Real man dangerously enter the England box, but his shot was well closed down by Joleon Lescott.

Carroll’s impact as a target man was cause for some positivity from the Wembley faithful with his flick-ons setting up half chances for both James Milner and Gerrard, but Lloris was rarely tested in the opening 45 minutes.

Looking to improve on their lacklustre first-half display, Capello introduced Micah Richards, Adam Johnson and Ashley Young, in place of Rio Ferdinand, Theo Walcott and Gareth Barry. France introduced Mamadou Sakho for Roma’s Philippe Mexes.

The changes brought about a temporary improvement for England, who looked hungrier in the early stages of the second half. Richards broke down the right early-on before Henderson clattered into Gourcuff, being somewhat fortunate to escape a card.

This energy spread throughout the side, Gerrard and Milner putting together a flowing interchange down the right which brought the Wembley crowd to its feet. France replied with a bursting run of their own, with Nasri breaking through England’s back four and going down under a challenge, but referee Claus Bo Larsen waved away the half-hearted penalty appeals.

Moments later France doubled their lead. Bakary Sagna stole in behind Arsenal team-mate Gibbs, and his cross was dutifully turned in by the onrushing Valbuena, volleying across goal and past Foster. It was no less than their dominance deserved.

With nothing to lose and the pace of Johnson and Young on either wing, England began to stretch France. Johnson drew a foul from Eric Abidal, and his floated cross from the resulting free-kick found Gerrard at the far post with his looping header clipping the top of the bar.

In an attempt to see the game out, Blanc removed the influential Benzema and Valbuena in place of young striker Loic Remy and experienced midfielder Alou Diarra.

England refused to lie down, however and Carroll had his best chance of the night when he rose above the French defence, but headed straight at Lloris. This was to be the Newcastle United striker’s last action of the night, as he and Gibbs made way for Stephen Warnock and another debutant in the shape of Cardiff City striker Jay Bothroyd.

The new-boy almost found an opening moments later, when a short free-kick found Johnson just inside the French 18-yard-box. His deflected shot almost fell at the feet of the substitute, but the ball went out for a corner.

France showed their confidence as they took of star-man Malouda in place of Dimitri Payet for only his third appearance for Les Bleus.

However Johnson’s impact was being increasingly apparent, none more so when he drove an awkward cross along the six-yard box, which Lloris could only parry into the path of Gerrard who struck wide under pressure.

France immediately hit back, as a bursting run from Nasri saw the midfielder round Warnock with ease, but his strike ricocheted off the England upright. The home side’s night got worse as stand-in captain Gerrard limped off the pitch, being replaced by Peter Crouch. The tall front-man made an instant impact however, breaking free from his marker to smartly side-foot a corner into the roof of the net with his first touch.

Predictably, it set up a grandstand finish. Indeed, England could have found themselves level in stoppage time, with Bothroyd meeting Johnson’s cross with a far post heaeder, but the result did little to trouble a well-placed Lloris.

The 2-1 scoreline was a fair reflection of Les Bleus' dominance over the 90 minutes, with France looking the more energetic on and off the ball, while Peter Crouch's 85th minute strike, his 22nd goal in 42 international appearances, proved merely a consolation.