So here it is. The time for talking – about topics both unsavoury and otherwise – can stop for 90 minutes at least as England kick off their Euro 2012 campaign against France in Donetsk on Monday evening.
The Group D opener is the first competitive match in charge for Roy Hodgson, who will no doubt be aware that expectations from both the travelling contingent of England fans and those watching back home are as low as they have been for many years.
Injuries and suspensions have played their part in that, but Hodgson himself has done little to raise the spirits of the disillusioned and if he hasn’t realised it already, he is about to discover that his honeymoon period as England boss didn’t even make it back down the aisle to see the bouquet thrown.
Housed in a group with Ukraine and Sweden, England and France will be favourites to progress but the Three Lions, missing Wayne Rooney for two group games through suspension and Jack Wilshere, Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry and Gary Cahill through injury, are in no position to take any opponents lightly.
Not that there is a chance of that on Monday. In France, England are not only getting their hardest match out of the way first – a help in the grand scheme of things – but they are facing a superior team.
Let’s be clear: blunted by the absence of Rooney, Hodgson will see a draw as a fine result and that is what he will be going for. And it isn’t going to be pretty. Two banks of four, rigidly drilled and under strict instruction to maintain shape, will be put in front of France.
That is shown in the odds with bwin, who make the French 7/5 favourites, with the draw at 21/10 and Hodgson’s men the same price to get their competition off to a dream start.
There are hardly the words to suitably describe France’s 2010 World Cup campaign in South Africa under the bizarre leadership of former coach Raymond Domeneche, but ‘catastrophically disgraceful’ just about covers a tournament where mutiny was rife and performances were diabolical.
Laurent Blanc picked up the shambles and has worked remarkably to restore the French public’s faith in the national team: no mean feat considering the outright contempt and hatred that existed towards the players from the supporters two years ago.
After a tough start with two straight defeats, Blanc got a hold of the squad, moved on some of the old guard and introduced a more humble approach that is reaping rewards.
Of course, Blanc has fine players at his disposal, which accounts for a brilliant 21-match unbeaten run France are currently enjoying and means that Hodgson will be in ultra-pragmatic mode on Monday.
Let’s be clear: blunted by the absence of Rooney, Hodgson will see a draw against France as a fine result and that is what he will be going for.
And it isn’t going to be pretty. Two banks of four, rigidly drilled and under strict instruction to maintain shape, will be put in front of France, who will be allowed the ball and given the task to break England down.
It will make the purist’s eyes bleed with boredom, but that is what we must be ready for and the question is have France got the nous to break England down?
They undoubtedly have personnel capable of changing a game in an instant, and Karim Benzema is a finisher of the highest order.
But as Chelsea proved on their successful Champions League run, even the finest sides can struggle against meticulously organised defences and as such, I don’t envisage a great deal happening during the 90 minutes.
It makes the 7/5 on under 1.5 goals a knocking bet. Since the start of the 2011/12 season, England have played eight games under both Fabio Capello and Hodgson. Clean sheets have been kept in six of those, with five matches producing fewer than two goals.
Hodgson’s two friendly games have both finished in 1-0 wins and his tactics are sure to involve strangling the life out of France and hoping to nick something on the break or from a set-piece.
On the other hand, Blanc won’t be too unhappy with a point either, so I expect a cagey affair with few chances. As such, under 1.5 goals at 7/5 is the way to go.
Recommended bet: Under 1.5 goals in England v France @ 7/5
Outside punt: England and France to draw 0-0 @ 21/4
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