Occasion more important than result at Wembley

England win 2-0 in friendly with France but scoreline secondary as football stands united

 French supporters hold a banner to appreciate the support prior to the friendly match between England and France at Wembley. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images

French supporters hold a banner to appreciate the support prior to the friendly match between England and France at Wembley. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images

 

In ordinary circumstances, it was the kind of result England would cherish on the countdown to a major tournament. These, of course, are not ordinary circumstances. England played well, scored two fine goals and Dele Alli excelled on his first start but, equally, there was the distinct sense we should probably not read too much into it given everything their opponents have endured since life in France changed last Friday evening.

France went through the motions but winning was not their priority. They were here because they had been asked to and because of what it symbolised. Paul Pogba offered a glimpse of his formidable talents when he was brought on at half-time but, for the most part, it was perfectly understandable there were other parts of the night when France played like they were sleepwalking.

They are a much more accomplished side than they showed on their first night back at work and, if we are thinking purely about the sporting side, it might not be such a bad idea if another friendly was rearranged closer to Euro 2016.

For now, Hodgson can at least be encouraged by Alli’s performance while Wayne Rooney has now scored more international goals than Robin van Persie and the same number, 51, as Thierry Henry. But this was always going to be a difficult match to judge.

In sporting terms, the edge had been blunted. Those French players might not want to admit it, but who could blame them if they did not really want to be out there? The evening – their mere presence – had taken on the form of a collective act of defiance, rather than a football match in the orthodox sense, and even before they had made it on to the pitch it did not require a body-language expert to understand the mood. Hugo Lloris stood at the front of the line in the tunnel and it was tough even to witness the difficulties of that moment. Nobody was shouting, or rousing their team-mates, in the way that normally would be expected. In fact, nobody spoke at all. They stared ahead and waited for the signal that the pre-match tributes were about to start. Then they moved forward in silence, one by one. They looked utterly shattered.

 

Football will return to normal in the coming days and weeks but, for one night only, it felt like it was the occasion that mattered rather than the scoreline. Lloris could be excused that moment early on when he shanked a kick straight to Harry Kane. It was a strange night for Alli and Eric Dier to form an all-Spurs alliance in the centre of England’s midfield but, in another sense, it was a strange night all round. Alli’s goal was a peach of a shot, soaring and dipping into the top corner, but nothing will linger in the memory more than that shared rendition of La Marseillaise, or the sight of the arch in its temporary colours, with “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” emblazoned on the side of the stadium.

The FA’s logistical staff were among the night’s outstanding performers. The crowd? They were everything that was required: respectful, dignified, united. As for the game itself, the first Mexican wave was snaking round the stadium midway through the first half. That is usually a sign that the football is not capturing the crowd’s imagination but towards the end of that period England were threatening with virtually every attack. Was it England playing well? Or was it that the team with the cockerels on their chest were on auto-pilot and barely going through the simple stuff, such as tracking back and getting into shape? Probably a bit of both. All that can really be said for certain is that it was a wonderful strike from Alli, not just because of the power and accuracy of his shot but also because of what preceded it.

Alli’s tackle on Morgan Schneiderlin felt incongruous to the rest of the evening. Schneiderlin certainly did not seem to appreciate it but Alli won the ball cleanly and was quickly on his feet. When it came back to him from Rooney, the teenager strode forward with nobody apparently too fussed about catching him, then drew back his foot and let fly from over 25 yards.

 

Alli played as though absolutely adamant the occasion could not pass him by. An early chance had been squandered when he took his eye off Kane’s cross-field pass but the tackle on Schneiderlin showed his mindset and his ability to win the ball was also evident when Rooney made it 2-0 two minutes after the restart.

This time Alli dispossessed Paul Pogba, one of two half-time substitutes for France, and played the ball to Raheem Sterling on the left. Sterling clipped his cross to the far post and Rooney scored with an emphatic volley. By that stage Rooney was operating on the right side of a modified attack. Hodgson had started with a 4-2-3-1 formation but swapped to 4-3-3 midway through the first half and at least it showed a willingness on the part of England’s manager to adapt during games and, if necessary, abandon his initial plan.

Jack Butland, who replaced Hart at half-time, kept out France’s best attacking moment, courtesy of Anthony Martial’s clever one-two with Pogba, but it was a rare chance for the visitors. After 57 minutes, Lassana Diarra entered the play as a substitute, four days since learning his cousin was among those killed in Paris. In the circumstances, it was no surprise France struggled to find any real momentum. Guardian Service

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