TheFA.com’s Insider provides his latest blog as England head to the semi-final.
Our stay in France has now been extended, courtesy of the point picked up against France on Saturday and now attentions have already turned to the semi-final clash with Spain in Saint-Lo on Tuesday afternoon.
The general consensus around the hotel here in Caen where the UEFA officials, four Group A teams, and now the semi-final contenders are staying, is that England were probably the most worthy team to seal second spot in Group A and progress to the knock-out stages with the hosts.
Whilst the opening game against Austria last Sunday yielded three points, it was perhaps a typical first match performance and Noel Blake and the players always knew that there was more to come.
A slow start to the game with the Netherlands in the week saw us concede an early goal and the eventual winner, but if you put the first 15 minutes aside, England were every bit as good if not better than the Dutch. That game really should have ended all square too, if Nathan Delfouneso’s second half strike hadn’t been ruled out.
Yesterday saw the team’s best display in what was a fantastic game of football for anyone privileged enough to have caught the action. Both teams played a decent brand of football, probing and testing each other in the first half with good chances at both ends of the field. There wasn’t even a second of added time in the first half, just to illustrate how flowing the game had been and it was a terrific advertisement for the competition.
Of course, France as hosts were always going to be on the front foot and as one of the favourites to win the competition on home soil, they were keen to impress the watching public in Saint-Lo.
So whilst they slightly shaded it in the opening hour, only slightly though, the last 20 minutes or so belonged to England. The Young Lions put the French defence under intense pressure, created some great chances as they have done in all their 12 games this season and never gave up.
So it was fully deserved when Matt Phillips smashed home the equaliser in added time (thankfully there was some in the second half!) to secure the draw and a place in the last four.
As it happens, a 1-0 defeat would still have been enough to see us progress but the lift that the goal gave England was evidently notable around the dressing room at full-time. It almost felt like a win and will definitely add some more momentum to the team for Tuesday.
There was a real spirit shown throughout the game on Saturday, and this wasn’t a surprise following the team outing last Thursday to Arromanches and ‘Gold Beach’ where many of the English soldiers arrived, and sacrificed their lives, in 1944 as part of the D-Day landings.
Prior to leaving the hotel, the squad were shown ten minutes of the opening and moving scenes from the film ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and it had the desired effect as there was silence throughout and for many of the players, a realisation of just what happened in this area of northern France all those years ago.
It hit home even more on arrival in Arromanches, where the players saw the German watchtower on the cliff tops as well as numerous memorials to groups such as the Royal Engineers who did so much to help secure our freedom in the modern world.
Captain Matthew James spoke eloquently afterwards about the impact the visit had on the squad and that was in evidence on Saturday as they played with pride, passion and skill for the Three Lions on their shirt. It was a visit that everyone appreciated and seen as something that we had to do ahead of our final group match.
So we move on in the competition and face Group B’s runaway leaders Spain, who along with France are everyone’s favourites. Who knows what will happen, but I remember last year’s semi-final against France too, when most had Les Bleues down as likely winners only for England to run out worthy victors then too.
We can only wait and see, but it will certainly be an interesting encounter.