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Monday, 5 December 2011

Let Me Take You Back ... To 13th June 2004

 By Jack Reed

In the week where we see England and France drawn together in a European Championship group, let me take you back to June 13th, 2004.

It was the opening game of the championships for both these sides. They, along with Croatia and Switzerland, made up group B and France and England were clear favourites to progress to the quarter-finals.

France of course had two times world player of the year Zinedine Zidane as their playmaker and the newly crowned ‘invincible’ trio of Henry, Pires and Vieira who had just won the league with Arsenal without losing a game.

England’s main absence was the disgraced Rio Ferdinand who had to watch it on tele as he missed a drugs test and was serving a 9 month ban from all football. The experienced Sol Campbell and debutant Ledley King were more than adequate replacements. Perhaps Sven Goran Eriksson’s most exciting selection was the 18 year old Everton wonderkid Wayne Rooney. He was to partner Michael Owen up front.

The early exchange saw a pattern quickly emerge. France although dominated possession, gave David James very little to do. England’s attacking midfield quartet of Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard and Scholes absorbed French pressure throughout the first half very capably.

Ledley King, making his international debut, kept Henry deafly quiet during the first half. Considering there was no better striker in world football at the time, Tottenham’s captain could not have played much better.

The match went without major incident until the 38th minute when Bixente Lizarazu brought down the England captain David Beckham on the right hand side of the French penalty area. This is where I desperately missing have Beckham in the England team today as his delivery is second to absolutely none. He whipped in a teasing cross to which Frank Lampard rose high and headed past a stationary Barthez. This was the first goal France had conceded in 11 games of international football.

I remember watching this and being a 12 year old, in complete shock that our England team could be beating a French team of such class. The most shocking part is we merited our half time lead.

Things needed to change for France and as the second half wore on Henry was becoming more of an influence. A brilliant counter attack from Vieira lead him to link with up with his Arsenal teammate who’s curling shot landed in the arms of a grateful David James.

While Henry was becoming more of an influence, without a doubt the most dangerous and exciting player on the pitch was Wayne Rooney. It was so refreshing to see a fearless teenager with so much raw pace and aggression take on and terrorise the best defence in International football.

In the 68th minute Rooney picked up the ball on the half way line and went for it.
He evaded three French players before Mikael Silvestre, cynically hacked him down in the penalty area. On further viewing, he was very fortunate to stay on the pitch and only received a caution. Not to matter. England had a penalty.

This was it! David Beckham will no way mess this up! We’re going to beat one of the greatest international sides of our generation in a competitive tournament! Wayne Rooney is going to be the best player in the tournament and the world! Come
on! All these of thoughts came rushing through my head….

Fabien Barthez saved David Beckham’s penalty in the 68th minute. Admittedly a nice height for a goalkeeper, it was hit with pace and the eccentric keeper did brilliantly to save it.

England needed to dig in deep. For the following twenty minutes Campbell and King were awesome. They won everything, whether on the ground or in the air, as the French pressure inevitably built.

Bang on 90 minutes, Emile Heskey, who replaced Rooney, needlessly gave away a free kick on the edge of the box. Zidane, who had a relatively quiet game by his high standards, stepped up.

He hit a beautiful free kick into the far post passed a helpless David James. A huge body blow to England who worked so hard in maintaining a 1-0 lead. A draw is not the end of the world I thought. A defeat however was.

A terrible back pass by Steven Gerrard in the 93rd minute was pounced upon by Henry. He flicked the ball passed James who came out and clattered him. Penalty to France with what was to be the last kick of the game.

Zizou, that man again, kept his composure to smash the penalty passed James. Disaster for England. I still maintain, at that point in football, nobody could have done what Zidane did in those last three minutes. He showed such levels of class and nerve to punish two silly England mistakes.

I had mixed feelings after the game, although we had lost, it was of the best performances I have seen for a long time. Wayne Rooney shone in defeat. When interviewed after the game, Thierry Henry said: “What a player Rooney, What a player.” He definitely deserved to be on the winning side that day.

Both teams would progress through to the quarter finals where they would be knocked out by Greece and Portugal respectively.

The peaks and troughs of emotion in that game will never be forgotten by either sets of fans on that June evening at the Estadio De Luz.

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