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Saturday, June 9, 2012

PREMIER REPORT

Chance for Hodgson to silence critics


LONDON — When Roy Hodgson was unveiled as the new England manager a month ago, he admitted he would have to grow a thicker skin.

CHRISTOPHER DAVIES

"Dealing with the mass media has been a part of my life. If I'm going to be vulnerable or lacking in any area, it might be that I don't have the thick enough skin to deal with you guys (the press). Maybe I should develop one. But I'd rather that than not have the wherewithal to do the job," he said.

Hodgson has needed the skin of an armadillo over the past two weeks as the John Terry-Rio Ferdinand row has overshadowed the buildup to their opening Euro 2012 game against France on Monday.

Terry is a car crash waiting to happen but this time it was a full-blown motorway pileup. When Hodgson chose Terry ahead of Ferdinand for football reasons without elaborating, his spurious answer opened a giant can of media worms.

While Terry is a fine player and inspirational defender, he brings excess baggage from on and off the field like no other England international. He has twice been stripped of the national team's captaincy, was the catalyst for Fabio Capello's resignation and next month faces a charge of racially aggravated abuse at Anton Ferdinand of Queens Park Rangers. Terry denies the charge.

Rio was seen as being left out because he is the brother of the alleged victim and Hodgson has been pilloried for his decision to pick the bad guy ahead of the good guy. But my sources tell me Hodgson spoke to both players about the sort of no-win situation he could well have done without inheriting.

Terry, understandably, said he was willing to play with Ferdinand and do anything to be part of the squad. Equally understandably, Ferdinand was unwilling to be a teammate of the man accused of racially abusing his brother.

This effectively made up Hodgson's mind which he could select or rather, not select — and to his credit, even in the face of fierce criticism he has not spilt any beans.

Hodgson's main concern about Terry is that his hamstring strain will allow him to play against a rejuvenated France, which is unbeaten in 21 games after winning only two points and scoring two goals at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup.

Laurent Blanc took over a squad that indulged in a French revolution to oust coach Raymond Domenech two years ago and has transformed it into one full of flair and harmony. Les Bleus' winning streak includes victories over Brazil, Germany and England. Blanc's 4-2-3-1 formation is effective and attractive.

If France has a weakness, it is in defense, where Philippe Mexes could be vulnerable to the power of Andy Carroll or the cunning of Danny Welbeck. Theo Walcott possesses the speed to trouble Patrice Evra, who has not had a vintage season for Manchester United, though Hodgson is likely to opt for James Milner on the right of midfield.

France's back-four is protected by midfield enforcers Yohan Cabaye and Yann M'Vila with Jeremy Menez, Samir Nasri and Franck Ribery providing pace and precision passing behind Karim Benzema, who has what it takes to make life very uncomfortable for Terry.

Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard must be aware that tackles that are unpunished in the Premier League will be deemed yellow card offenses, or worse, at the European Championship. Optimism in England is minimal after the debacle of the World Cup two years ago, but Hodgson knows how to organize a side and one goal could decide this match.

* * *

IN FOUR years under Giovanni Trapattoni, the Republic of Ireland has not lost an away game. It has lost only one of 20 group qualifying matches for Euro 2012 and the 2010 World Cup. Ireland is unbeaten in 17 games, which is a remarkable achievement for a team made up of players from lowly Premier League sides, three from next year's Championship and the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Their sum total is far greater than the individual parts but Trapattoni's system is a masterclass in getting the maximum from the players at his disposal. Individually, Croatia, which Ireland plays Sunday, is streets ahead of Team Trap with Luka Modric, Darijo Srna, Ivo Ilicevic and Ivan Perisic among the most skillful midfielders at the finals.

Ireland defender Richard Dunne said: "The organization is constant, like you would imagine a typical Italian team. . . . There is no leeway. Their way is the right way and it has got us this far so we have to trust them."

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.


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