Paul Parker

Defeat to France unthinkable for England

There has been a lot of talk about how England heading into the European Championships with relatively low expectations from back home could help them, but they must still believe they can do well and compete.

Wayne Rooney may well have raised a few wry smiles when he claimed that winning the tournament is within England's capabilities, especially considering his own petulance has cost him playing any part in the first two matches.

But what else is he expected to say? No player gets to the top level without having supreme confidence of their own ability and that of the others around them, no matter how things might look on paper.

The most important thing for England in their opening game against France is to avoid defeat. Beating them would of course be incredible for many reasons. It would hand England the initiative in the group, would end France's long unbeaten run and avenge that heart-breaking defeat at Euro 2004.

However, a draw in their Group D opener in Donetsk would do England just fine, as it still puts them in with a genuine shout of topping their group. That is something which will be vital in their chances of progressing past the quarter-finals.

In 2004, after losing to France, they won both of their other group games but still finished second, and as such they played Portugal in the next round and were eliminated while France had would should have been the much easier draw against Greece.

If a similar set of circumstances bears out again this year, England will most likely come up against defending champions Spain. Facing likely Group C runners-up Italy might not be a walk in the park, but any manager given the choice would surely plump for the Azzurri every time.

Also, defeat in that opener in Lisbon eight years was compensated by victories over Switzerland and Croatia orchestrated by a young Rooney. This time, England will play tournament bogey side Sweden and co-hosts Ukraine, and will only have the services of Rooney for the second of those games.

Forget the friendly win over Sweden at Wembley last November. When it matters, the Scandinavians have an exceptional record against England. Besides, Spain lost at Wembley just three days before Sweden did last year, and you'd be hard pressed to find too many fans who would be confident of beating the world and European champions in a competitive fixture.

As for Ukraine, the co-hosts may hardly be touted as potential winners, but we have seen time and again what competing in a championship at home can do for a team. Their FIFA ranking of 52nd in the world is not exactly a ringing endorsement, but how many people out there really believe England to be the sixth best team on the planet?

It would great if England got their campaign off to a winning start, especially as it would extend Roy Hodgson's record to three wins out of three, but avoiding defeat on Monday would be satisfactory.