Two defeats in Lorient, but plenty of positives to pick from.
By Simon Walker
24 January 2012: France 3 – 1 England (Lorient, France)
25 January 2012: France 5 – 3 England (Lorient, France)
The England Futsal squad took impressive strides forward in these two friendly international matches against a strong and formidable French team. Playing away from home is never easy, particularly in front of a 2000 plus partisan crowd, against a team ranked nearly 50 places higher in the world rankings and who are in a recent rich vein of form.
Although the England team lost both matches, the manner of the defeats and the quality of the performances will leave Head Coach Pete Sturgess with many more positive reflections than negative. There is no doubt that France deserved their victory in the first match, but it was an entirely different story in the action-filled second game, where with a bit more luck and some better refereeing decisions England did more than enough to at least share the spoils.
England have progressed remarkably quickly over the last two years, but these two matches in Lorient were always going to be a tough challenge, and from the outset of match one France demonstrated the quality that they possess: skilful players, with clever athletic movements, who continuously posed problems and threatened the English goal. The French players passed the ball quickly, dominating possession for much of the first half. England showed how far they’ve come in recent times by not wilting under the pressure. The English players maintained their composure and concentration to keep a solid defensive block that withstood the continuous attacks from the team in blue. The arena in Lorient was a sell-out with the largest crowd that many of the young English team had ever played in front of; and as the half progressed the French supporters could sense the blood of their old adversaries as wave after wave of blue attacks crashed on the English defence.
But when the French managed to break-down the English defence, they found England’s goalkeeper James Dalton in almost unbeatable form. Dalton made a string of crucial saves, some from long-range, others from one-on-one scenarios and others simply spontaneous reaction stops. The frustration from the French began to creep into their play, whilst the French crowd showed clear admiration for the heroics of Dalton and the unerring belief from the English resistance. England soaked up the attacks and then in the last few minutes before half-time, they began to demonstrate more attacking verve to their game as Sturgess’ men turned the tables. England wasted a handful of good opportunities to give them a lead going into the interval, with clever movement and incisive passing leaving the French feeling relieved that the scoreline was 0-0 at the break.
Half-time came at the wrong point for the English team who were in the ascendancy, and the French re-grouped and began to reapply pressure. England still threatened on the counter-attack with Luke Ballinger missing a great chance from close range, and Will Rooke over-running an outstanding cross-field ball into the box from debutant Guillermo Wallace. But two minutes into the second half calamity occurred after Dalton’s excellent work was undone by a cruel deflection off Ben Mortlock as a French cross wrong-footed the English goalkeeper. This was then quickly followed by an exquisite one-touch passing move from the French that opened up the English defence and offered an easy tap-in to provide them with a 2-0 lead.
England were clearly rattled and their play became a little ragged with passes going astray and possession being surrendered cheaply. And this was the cause of the French third goal. Rob Ursell lost possession near his goal and had to resort to conceding a free-kick. A pile-driver of a shot deflected off Ursell in the wall and past a helpless Dalton.
In the past, England would have descended into a state of self-pity after conceding two cruel deflections that had undone much of their good work, but not this time. As the French crowd demanded their team to put England to the swords, a new inner strength was evident in the England players. They began to pass the ball with more assurance, retaining possession better and stretching the French defence. This culminated in Nick Colley scoring a phenomenal goal at full stretch. Colley received the ball on the touchline and on the half-volley under pressure slammed it into the far corner of the goal. The French looked rattled, and a couple of late half-chances fell to Sam Murphy and Neil Morgan. But ultimately a 3-1 win for the French was deserved and England had no complaints.
The second night saw an even larger crowd cram into the Lorient arena, with the aspirations of seeing their French team dominate the English. But France started the game far more cautiously showing the England players a new level of respect. England on the other hand were extremely positive, passing the ball with more precision and purpose; the English players, led by captain Luke Ballinger, were playing at a higher intensity than the previous evening, which in the early exchanges the French struggled to cope with. The game quickly opened up into a compelling contest with both teams playing high-quality dynamic Futsal that was end-to-end.
James Dalton had yet another inspired performance in goal for England, but the first good chance fell to Guillermo Wallace. A quick counter-attack caught the French napping, and a ball fired across the French box found Wallace at the back post with an open goal, and somehow he allowed the ball under his foot and failed to score his first goal in an England shirt. The crowd released a huge sigh of relief, and the players in blue quickly responded by raising their game with some neat passing and a sweet finish from close range by Parfait Mendy to give them the lead.
Although England had dominated this first period of the game, they didn’t allow this set-back to halt their momentum, and it wasn’t long before a clever run by Neil Morgan was picked out by an excellent long pass for Morgan to go one-on-one with the French goalkeeper. Morgan’s first and second shots were both blocked by the keeper, but the rebound fell to Ballinger to slam home on the volley. The French crowd were momentarily silenced, before booing rang out around the stadium; rather than being intimidated by the crowd’s response Ballinger and his team-mates appeared to relish the reaction that their goal had caused.
The game continued to ebb-and-flow at an incredibly high tempo, with both team’s having opportunities. After some good wing play by Hamdoud, they took advantage of a momentary lapse in concentration in the English ranks, it was the French captain Stephane Basson who seized the initiative by converting a tap in at the far post to give them a 2-1 lead. With little time remaining on the clock before half-time the French looked to retain possession, until Basson was judged to have fouled Rob Ursell on the edge of their area. England’s top goalscorer, Ballinger, connected sweetly with the free kick and hammered it past the wall and into the corner of the net. 2-2 was a fair reflection of the first period.
The intensity and excitement continued into the second half, but it took a further ten minutes before the next goal was scored. During a spell of French pressure that England had soaked up and looked comfortable, an uncharacteristic mistake by Ben Mortlock that allowed a shot by Mustapha Otmani from distance to go through his legs catching the England goalkeeper unsighted as it found the bottom corner.
France then demonstrated why they are ranked so highly as they turned on the pressure to consolidate their lead. Although excellent technicians, the French were also extremely physical, and a strong off-the-ball body-check by Khireddine on Ollie O’Neil on the edge of the England area that went unpunished created enough space for France’s star player Alexandre Teixeira to score the goal of the game with a rocket of a shot that nestled into the top corner.
At 4-2, the French players and the crowd began to relax, but Pete Sturgess’ men yet again rallied to challenge France. Sam Murphy who tormented France all game, lined up a free kick on the edge of the French area and blasted it into the bottom corner to bring England back into contention at 4-3 and to set-up a pulsating last five minutes of the contest.
Both France and England were beginning to tire and committed foul after foul which soon saw them both reach their five-foul maximum: any further fouls would result in a long penalty against the perpetrators. England continued to push, and when a tricky run by Ballinger saw him upended in front of both the referee and the French bench a long-penalty for England looked certain. But unbelievably as Ballinger picked up the ball and began walking towards the penalty spot, the French referee seemingly affected by the intimidating appeals by the France bench reversed his decision and booked the England captain for an apparent dive.
With England reeling from this injustice that prevented them from having a chance of levelling the scores, further incident was still on the horizon. With a minute remaining on the clock, a strong challenge by both Morgan and Otmani which resulted in Morgan clearly winning the ball was penalised by the French match official, even though he was positioned at the other end of the court and the tackle occurred metres away from the second referee who clearly adjudged it to be a fair tackle. This foul resulted in the French scoring their long-penalty to seal the game 5-3.
England can feel immensely unlucky not to have got at least a draw out of this final match, but Pete Sturgess and his squad should be proud at the dignified way in which they handled their perception of being at the wrong end of two important refereeing decisions. Although the two scorelines were not in England’s favour, the squad are able to view these two performances with much satisfaction at the progress that they are making on the international scene. The squad will be able to maintain their recent momentum when they play Switzerland at home in March.