• Hodgson happy he has a team that can 'give them a game'
• Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck could be preferred strikers
It was in the immediate aftermath of the second of his two preparatory games that Roy Hodgson was finally forced to confront the competition. France await at the Donbass Arena in a week's time, a team who, by then, could be unbeaten in 21 matches, settled on their strategy and, surely, established as contenders for the entire tournament. England, depleted by injury and suspension, look like a fledgling work in progress, with the task ahead exposing the realist in their manager of 35 days.
There will be no bold public statements of intent from this regime. "I have a team in my head that can do very well against France," Hodgson said. "Whether we can beat them, I don't know. They are 20 games unbeaten before playing Estonia [on Tuesday night], so they obviously have something. They have a lot of matches behind them with a team they have believed in. Their team takes care of itself. We can't suggest at the moment we are in that position. I am happier we are moving towards a team that can not only give them a game and, if we have a bit of luck on our side, perhaps we can win it. But I don't think we'll go into the game as favourites."
England travel to Poland this week with their manager's pragmatism defining any underlying sense of ambition. In some ways Hodgson's honest approach is refreshing. An absence of the bold pre‑tournament bravado of previous years, which always proved so utterly misplaced, will not be lamented, and progress into the latter stages this time round will feel pleasantly unexpected, particularly given that Gary Cahill has now been added to the list of enforced absentees.
But from slender, and anything but scintillating, friendly victories against Belgium and Norway, the watching world has at least gleaned some understanding of what Hodgson's side will offer in the finals ahead. The handful of training sessions he has overseen have produced a team that strains to be well-drilled and organised, the basic skills England will need to prolong their stay in Poland and Ukraine.
More probing tests of their defensive obduracy await. Neither Norway nor Belgium, despite Marc Wilmots's team proving slick and creative in the buildup, benefited from any bite in front of goal. The visitors to Wembley served up pretty patterns in possession, Eden Hazard offering Chelsea fans a tantalising glimpse of the skills to complement those of Juan Mata next term, but the closest they came to scoring was when Guillaume Gillet tired of all the delicacy and battered a shot from distance against the outside of a post. France will have a more menacing focal point in Karim Benzema, with the prolific Montpellier forward Olivier Giroud an imposing back-up. If their fluid and creative midfield clicks in Donetsk, it will rapidly become clear whether England are as watertight as is hoped.
Hodgson has not been lulled into any false sense of security, the untimely stomach-muscle tears, hamstring twangs and jaw-line fractures making his task all the more awkward. "It's not the case that I have gone in with some major principle, have got the players around and said: 'Now, lads, this is what we are going to do, we are going to be hard to beat,'" he said.
"Of course, we do have good defenders and plenty of experience in that area, and that is what is shining through at the moment, but we are very pleased with the overall work rate. What has been proved to me is there will be lots of hard work. People will be making challenges and getting back, and others trying to cover by running back into position. It doesn't matter whether you are England manager or managing a non-league team: they are qualities in football players which go a long way."
The injection of real invention is still to come. There are players in the set-up who can create. Ashley Young has shown flashes in both friendlies and having slipped Danny Welbeck through to convert smartly on Saturday, has now scored or provided 11 out of the last 20 goals mustered by the national side. He was already influential towards the end of Fabio Capello's tenure but now seems critical, not least because he combines so cleverly with Welbeck and Andy Carroll.
The Liverpool target man had impressed at the Ullevaal Stadion the previous weekend but, in the end, the slippery threat provided by the Manchester United pairing may sway Hodgson's decision-making against France in a game in which England will have to strike on the counter.
The manager cited Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as another who can offer the unpredictable, and there is Wayne Rooney to return from suspension for the third group match, against Ukraine. Yet against France the suspicion remains that caution will prevail to ensure the rest of the group fixtures are not rendered a scrambled game of catch-up. Oxlade-Chamberlain, at 18, might lack the discipline required down a flank where France's marauding right-back, Mathieu Debuchy, will threaten. The experienced Stewart Downing, albeit not a winger known for his feverish tackling, may offer Ashley Cole more reassurance.
James Milner already looks to be first-choice on the right, a workaholic winger capable of tucking inside to clog up opponents' buildup plays, which has implications for Theo Walcott. "The thing about Theo is that he has had quite a few chances in the team," Hodgson said. "It seems to me that, quite often, his name will come up in these situations [when he has been used from the bench]. When he has started games it has been quite the opposite and people have said you need someone else in there. If I opt for Milner and it doesn't go well, I should have played Walcott. If I opt for Walcott and it doesn't go well, I should have played Milner. I am not trying to be clever. They are different types of player."
The worry is that Milner and Downing have 60 caps between them and not a goal to their name. Normally the emphasis would be on supplying rather than scoring, but this England side will not create a glut of opportunities. Ruthlessness will be required. In that respect, to have seen his team prevail in his first two fixtures despite opponents hogging the ball offers Hodgson real encouragement.
The latest winning goal, born of Welbeck and Steven Gerrard stealing possession from Moussa Dembélé before Young conjured the decisive pass, fitted the gameplan perfectly. "When your two front players work well together like that and nick the ball off defenders and score a goal, you have a hell of a chance at any level," Hodgson said. Time will tell if England can, indeed, make the most of the opportunity ahead.