The France head coach, Laurent Blanc, has rejected suggestions his side should be considered serious contenders to win the European Championship and instead preached caution over the threat posed by England.
Les Bleus are unbeaten in 21 matches, stretching back to their opening qualifying game against Belarus in the autumn of 2010, and steadily restoring pride after the humiliation of the players' rebellion against the former coach Raymond Domenech at the World Cup in South Africa. Fabio Capello's England were one of the sides beaten during that lengthy sequence – at Wembley 19 months ago – but Blanc insisted his team remain in transition with the immediate ambition merely to emerge from the section into the knockout phase.
"The French team don't have the same ambitions as Spain or Germany at the start of these European Championships," said Blanc, a World Cup winner in 1998. "In terms of results over the last few years, France have simply not allowed us to retain our previous standing in European or world football. People say I'm always bringing that up, but I don't do it because I like to: it's the reality. They say we're favourites in the group, but how can we be? We were in the fourth pot of seeds for the draw, after all, and that means something.
"We have the feeling France is still under construction. That we are still rebuilding. We could be the dark horses people from abroad are saying, but the sense back home is one of concern and scepticism. We've had some difficult times, and we're not going to hide away from them. We've been building things little by little, slowly over the last two years, and we qualified – albeit with some difficulty – and deserve to be here. We're no longer one of the top sides in European football, and there are others who are better than us in these finals. But, if we can get out of the group stage, anything can happen."
Blanc, whose side are based in Donetsk and therefore more accustomed to the searing heat here, has been boosted by the progress made by the likes of Yann M'vila and Blaise Matuidi in their recoveries from ankle and hamstring injuries respectively, but neither is likely to start tonight. Instead, Alou Diarra – fit after a knee complaint – should anchor the midfield alongside Newcastle United's Yohan Cabaye with the French determined to play a brand of expansive football against stubborn opposition.
Yet their approach will reflect a wariness of England's potency on the counter-attack. "They'll drop back, have a bank of four with some quick players in there, and try and hit us on the break," said Blanc. "We need to be careful with that and make sure we're not caught off guard. If there's space in behind our back four, they'll counter-attack. If they play [Danny] Welbeck, we'll have to leave him as little space as possible to exploit.
"But we'll play our own style. If we sat back and waited for the English to come at us, it'd be 0-0 and we might end up only threatening to score a goal from a set-piece. No, there'll be two very different philosophies on show and I hope the side that plays more football will win the game, even if that's not always the case. We've stored up confidence from our unbeaten run, and we're ready and eager to get our tournament started."