England's wait to begin a European Championship with a win has been prolonged though, once he had retreated from the steamy heat of the Donbass Arena, Roy Hodgson might have been satisfied with this opening. The French had been hoisted as Group D's most potent threat and they have been held with the huff and puff that was expected of Hodgson's team. The banks of four held firm, their concentration wavering only momentarily even if the manager must have been cursing the inability to retain the lead for more than nine minutes. England were stodgy rather than scintillating but there was defensive solidity to admire. That resilience bodes well and maintains a theme established in the two pre-tournament friendlies. Yet, while this was admirable, it is hard to imagine the tournament's real favourites – Germany, Spain or even Russia – quaking in their boots at the prospect of confronting England in the knockout stage. But, then again, that hardly feels revelatory. This, if anything, confirmed what we knew: England will be tough to break down but will threaten only in flashes.
The decision to start with Alex Oxlade‑Chamberlain, a teenager with six Premier League starts and the past two England games under his belt, had revealed Hodgson's spirit of adventure. France may have come into the game bolstered by their long unbeaten run but they retained vulnerability both in central midfield, where Yann M'vila was missed, and at the heart of their defence. Adil Rami and Philippe Mexès lumbered at times, and Oxlade‑Chamberlain, drifting inside from the flank, seemed like a natural pest. He embarrassed Rami in the opening 150 seconds, and summoned occasional trickery and slick movement in combination with Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck. Here, it seemed, was an opportunity with Mathieu Debuchy occasionally left exposed by the desire of Yohan Cabaye and Samir Nasri to drift inside. Yet Oxlade-Chamberlain, offered only glimpses of the ball, was left looking the raw talent he is. His decision-making was erratic at times, though that was surely born of an anxiety to exploit any opportunity to dribble that could be squeezed out. He remains the future for this team. It just feels as if the present may still be too soon.
England's possession stats, predictably enough, slipped as France pinged their passes contentedly and Hodgson's midfield retreated further behind the ball. They were far too deep, with nine in their own penalty area, by the time Nasri fizzed in his equaliser and the frustration was that Young, the creative spirit around which they had to attack, did not see enough of possession to inflict his own damage. His beautifully weighted pass for the rampaging James Milner had eked out the game's first opportunity – the midfielder could find only the side-netting – and offered an indication of what could be achieved by a player who has scored and created at will over recent international outings. Alou Diarra, labouring as a replacement for M'vila, may have been a leggy presence but he never felt capable of keeping up. Yet England rarely poured into those channels at any pace, driving the French into retreat, meaning Young was left frustrated and too peripheral. There was a booking for a foul on Mexès and, eventually, a switch to the left. His qualities must be more effectively exploited against the Swedes in Kiev.
Laurent Blanc had not even offered cautious optimism on the eve of this game. He had gone, instead, for painful realism when detailing his side's aspirations at this tournament. The French had seen their reputation sullied by the deflation of Euro 2008 and the open revolt against the then coach, Raymond Domenech, in South Africa two years ago. The 21-match unbeaten run mattered little, apparently, as they were still a team in transition. Yet, while they were never as fluent as Blanc would have liked here, this hinted at better times ahead. There is quality in their forward-thinking ranks that purrs at times, with Franck Ribéry a menace and Nasri a permanent threat. Karim Benzema was quieter than anticipated here but still caused England consternation. Cabaye was the best of their midfield trio, a classy performer relishing his chance, with his former Lille team-mate Debuchy magnificent when pushing up-field. The pity for Blanc is that France's rearguard will surely undermine their campaign eventually. Mexès and Rami, the first‑choice pairing, felt cumbersome and awkward, the latter's concentration drifting too often. More fluent teams than England might have a field day.
The Uefa delegate at the Donbass Arena had triumphantly preluded each of the pre-match press conferences with confirmation that only 724 tickets remained for this fixture in a stadium that held 49,400. It was strange, then, to witness the large banks of empty orange and black seats in all three tiers of the ground. The area round the corner flag nearest the flag-waving French fans was particularly sparsely populated. Les Bleus appeared to be backed by no more than 800, and that might have been an optimistic estimate, with the English flags of St George proclaiming loyalty to clubs from around the 92 having proudly taken the opposite end. Yet while England's support was roused when their team edged forward – even with their band banned – the atmosphere drifted for long periods, the fans' chants lost in the ether. Instead, it was the locals who made themselves heard most of all, albeit with boisterous choruses of "Rossija". Donetsk may be Ukraine's fifth-largest city but it lies on the Steppe not far from the Russian border and, unsurprisingly, boasts a substantial Russian community.