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England denied by Russia’s last-gasp equaliser in Euro 2016 opener

The Guardian logo The Guardian 12-06-2016 Daniel Taylor at the Stade Vélodrome
Denis Glushakov applies the finishing touch to Vasili Berezutski’s header to deny England at the last in Marseille. © Reuters Denis Glushakov applies the finishing touch to Vasili Berezutski’s header to deny England at the last in Marseille.

England have waited an awfully long time to win their opening match of a European Championship and their desperation at the end of this match will be exacerbated by the way they passed up the opportunity to bury that long run. This was their ninth attempt, stretching all the way back to 1980, and Roy Hodgson’s team ought to be frustrated in the extreme to have surrendered their lead

Hodgson’s men had played with width and penetration and should probably have made it a more stress-free occasion bearing in mind the number of chances they failed to convert before Eric Dier’s 73rd-minute free-kick. Instead the clock had ticked into its third minute of stoppage time when a cross was aimed to the far post the Russian captain, Vasili Berezutski, managed to get in between Danny Rose and Dele Alli to send a looping header into the far corner of the net.

The scenes at the end, when Russian supporters stormed the England end, will have serious ramifications but Hodgson’s disappointment will come in other measures as he prepares for the game against Wales on Thursday and deliberates whether to keep his new 4-1-2-3 formation.

Rooney was so prominently involved it is difficult to imagine he will revert to being a striker. Raheem Sterling’s improved form must be encouraging even if he did fade in the second half and, though there are still imperfections, Hodgson has at least put together the kind of side that England’s public wanted: bold and adventurous. With Kyle Walker and Danny Rose surging forward from the full-back positions, there cannot be many other sides in the competition to play with such an attack-minded streak.

Walker’s driving runs on the right were particularly effective and, for sheer athleticism, those bursts of pace could draw comparisons with Cafu. Without wishing to get too carried away, others might recall Djalmar Santos from Brazil’s 1962 World Cup-winning team. Walker’s positional sense might need fine-tuning sometimes but they were thrilling advances and when he can attack in this manner it removes the allegation that Hodgson has abandoned natural width. More than once, Walker’s starting position was as far up the pitch as Kane’s.

Hodgson had five players from Tottenham Hotspur in his starting lineup and Dele Alli’s early nutmeg on Roman Neustädter should have removed any lingering concerns that the midfielder might be fazed in any way by his first tournament experience. Dier was the barrier in front of defence while Rooney and Alli had the licence to roam forward and, for long spells, controlled the tempo. Sterling was on the left but frequently moved inside, with Rose often running outside him, and Adam Lallana could also drift into the middle without fear of abandoning his role when Walker was so eager to double up on the right.

England’s fluidity and movement caused Russia plenty of problems and, by half-time, Hodgson must have been aggrieved not to have turned their superiority into the hard currency of goals. Lallana really ought to have been more clinical with the two best chances but showed instead why he is still waiting for his first England goal. There was a header from Alli that flashed wide, another from Chris Smalling from one of Kane’s corners and a cross from Rose that went agonisingly across the six-yard area without anyone applying the final touch.

Russia looked moderate opponents but there were still flashes of danger. Joe Hart was called into action when the centre-half, Sergei Ignashevich, aimed a header goalwards from one free-kick into the penalty area and England’s goalkeeper had a minor scare early on when he kicked the ball out and it ricocheted against the back of Smalling. Overall, though, England looked the more rounded side and eager to get behind the opposition defence, as might have been expected of a side featuring seven outfield players with attacking mindsets.

Perhaps England’s problem in the opening period was that none of their chances fell to Kane and it was the same again, early in the second half, when the ball dropped to an unmarked Sterling and he passed up the opportunity to shoot.

Otherwise, Hodgson’s team had lost some of their momentum after the interval. Russia had started to take better care of the ball and, for the first time, started to put their opponents under pressure, attacking the end where their bare-chested fans were becoming increasingly vociferous.

Hart had to tip the ball over from one corner after Dier inadvertently turned a header towards his own goal and, shortly after the hour, Fedor Smolov was not far away with a curling right-footed shot from just outside the penalty area.

Yet England came back again. Shortly before Dier’s free-kick, there was a remarkable save from Igor Akinfeev to turn Rooney’s shot against the crossbar. Lallana struck the rebound against the post but the goal would have been disallowed anyway because he had strayed into an offside position and, at that stage, it was starting to feel like England might be in for a frustrating night.

Then Alli slipped the ball through another opponent’s legs and won a free-kick 20 yards from goal. Kane and Rooney both left it to Dier and it was a glorious strike to put England ahead before everything dramatically unravelled in the closing seconds.

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