England’s latest failure to start a European Championship with victory will be overshadowed by two days of violence and ugly scenes that brought shame to the opening exchanges of Euro 2016.
Manager Roy Hodgson’s concerns will be sporting ones as England’s carelessness in front of goal and his decision to substitute man-of-the-match Wayne Rooney in a flawed attempt to defend a narrow lead helped Russia claim an undeserved point here in Marseille.
In the wider context for Uefa and the authorities responsible for policing this event, there must be greater worries about the scale of trouble before and after England’s 1-1 draw at Stade Velodrome.
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Violence raises serious questions
From the moment England and Russia fans started flooding into Marseille on Thursday and Friday, there was an undercurrent of tension and violence that was transformed into scenes that were a throwback to some of football’s worst hooligan excesses of the past.
In the steamy, humid environment of this port city in the south of France, with alcohol following freely in searing temperatures and demonstrations of aggression from both sets of fans, all the ingredients were in place for events that unfolded in the Vieux-Port de Marseille.
As a long, hot Saturday wore on towards a late kick-off at 21:00 local time, the scenery shifted to the magnificent, sweeping curves of the Stade Velodrome, culminating in the disgraceful incidents that took place just seconds after full-time.
Flares had been lit in the Russian section at one end of the stadium as the clock ticked down and a firework flew high into the stand before the most serious trouble inside the stadium blew up after the final whistle – moments after Vasili Berezutski’s looping header deep into stoppage time had cancelled out Eric Dier’s free-kick.
At the end that had been defended by England, hundreds of Russian fans broke through segregation that was flimsy to the point of being non-existent and charged their counterparts.
It was particularly disturbing given the high levels of security and policing that were in evidence around the stadium as the authorities remain on high alert after November’s Paris attacks. Security, here at least, seemed in very short supply.
Fighting broke out as England fans beat a frightened retreat, many jumping over barriers as they fled and others stuck in hazardous bottlenecks at exits as they tried to escape what was, for a time at least, dangerously escalating violence.
There was no security cordon or barrier worthy of the name as Russian fans blasted their way through one side of the stand to the other towards England supporters.
Many supporters involved in the charge had their faces covered to avoid identification and there seemed to be a slow reaction from police and stewards before the situation eventually calmed with England fans moving to the exits and Russian supporters either returning to their seats or leaving the ground.
The streets back into the city centre were still choked two hours after the game as local police and ambulances attempted to weave their way through static traffic to reach other flashpoints in Marseille as the trouble continued.
It was the sort of hooliganism the game’s rulers hoped had been stamped out but has reared its head in sinister fashion less than 48 hours into Euro 2016. It demands a strong reaction, not just from European football’s governing body Uefa, but also those who saw the shortcomings of security exposed after the final whistle here.
Did Hodgson make a crucial error?
Roy Hodgson got plenty right in England’s planning and execution of what the manager hoped would be their first winning start to a Euros – but instead of getting the victory he and his team deserved, the 68-year-old was left facing a crucial question.
Did he make a critical error when he replaced man-of-the-match Wayne Rooney with Jack Wilshere five minutes after Dier put England ahead with a fierce 73rd-minute free-kick?
Rooney had been England’s manipulator and inspiration, switching play, helping out in defence and generally running the show as part of his latest role in midfield.
It was a major surprise to see him removed for Wilshere, who acquitted himself well, but Rooney’s experience and guidance may just have seen England close out a victory.
It is easy to be critical after the event and England were only seconds away from victory but there seemed little logic in the decision to take Rooney off given how well he had played and the impact his presence has on his younger team-mates. Hodgson said the 30-year-old was tired and the manner in which England were controlling the game afforded him the luxury of introducing Wilshere.
The flaw in Hodgson’s theory is that Rooney was the primary reason for England’s control – making his substitution a mystery and ultimately an error.
The body language of England’s players, slumped on the turf in disbelief at how they had not beaten a desperately average Russia, spoke of their disappointment at what had hit them in those closing seconds.
It will have lingered as they made their way back to their quiet base in Chantilly, its restful ambience a sharp contrast to Marseille’s edgy bustle – but England had plenty to be encouraged about. It was a performance that, for the large part, bristled with positive intent.
Adam Lallana fully justified his selection while Rooney’s move back into midfield was a roaring success. In the opening 45 minutes England looked irresistible, the one very significant rider being that they failed to score, which came back to haunt them.
But this young England side looked full of vigour and ambition, particularly in the first half. Hodgson’s late shift of emphasis, which saw Lallana and the struggling Raheem Sterling offer natural width and Jamie Vardy left out, has much to recommend it once the pain of only getting a draw subsides. Sterling may, however, be pushed to the margins once more.
Vardy still has plenty of time to make a contribution to Euro 2016, as have Daniel Sturridge and Marcus Rashford. Tottenham pair Harry Kane and Dele Alli have proved their class for England so more can be expected in the coming games.
England should face Wales with confidence on Thursday – but if they get supremacy they must make it count otherwise their Euro 2016 campaign will take on an ominously familiar appearance.
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England under pressure again
The format of Euro 2016, with 24 teams, means England will have to try very hard not to get out of Group B. If they fail, you would not risk much of the family silver on Hodgson’s survival chances.
And while a draw against Russia is hardly terminal, it ramps up the pressure for their most eagerly awaited game when they face Wales.
The Welsh camp, led by Gareth Bale, have already fired some barbs in England’s direction and they would love nothing better than reducing the old sporting enemy’s chances of progress by adding another victory to their 2-1 win over Slovakia.
England have suffered before for failing to make a winning start. They played well in the 2-1 loss to Italy in Manaus in Brazil in 2014 but it meant a subsequent loss to Uruguay ended their World Cup.
No wonder England’s players looked so disconsolate at the final whistle in Marseille. No matter how harsh the final score, they have made lives more difficult for themselves despite the excellence of their performance for large portions of this game.
The Welsh will be waiting in Lens. England must respond.
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