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Saturday, December 10, 2011

England dodge big guns

Fabio Capello could not disguise his sense of relief after England avoided being thrust into a group that included Portugal and Holland and were, instead, drawn with France, Sweden and the hosts Ukraine in Group D at Euro 2012.

While the Italian admitted he had endured a "terrible" wait as the draw was being made by Marco van Basten at Kiev's Palace of Arts and Culture, England find themselves at a disadvantage logistically at the finals, having opted to be based in the Polish city of Krakow. Capello's side must now play twice in Donetsk and once in Kiev in the group, travelling over 4,000 miles in the process, while their three group rivals are all based in Ukraine.

The French, whom England are to play in their opening match on 11 June, are due to stay in Donetsk while Sweden, like Ukraine, will be in Kiev having initially earmarked potential bases in both host countries. The Football Association opted against drawing up a similar back-up plan, with Capello duly ruling out a move from Krakow. "It's normal, the travelling," he said. "When we play qualifying games, we arrive the day before from England.

"I think Krakow to Donetsk is shorter than some of the journeys we have made, so I'm happy with Krakow. The facilities there are really good and the players will be happy with the hotel and the training games. We will not change our base."

Should England finish as runners-up in the section – with a quarter-final most likely against Spain or Italy to follow – then they would spend their entire tournament playing in Ukraine, with trips to and from their base potentially topping 8,000 miles. Even so, the national manager expressed relief to have avoided being drawn in Group B after seeing Germany join the Dutch, Portuguese and Danes in the tournament's most onerous group.

"There was a terrible moment while I waited for us to be drawn because Group B was really strong," said Capello. "I was happy after we got past that, Groups A and C were difficult but Group B was strongest. All the games will be difficult but I know all the teams we will play against. France are a really good team and difficult to play against, Sweden have good organisation and we played Ukraine in qualifying for the World Cup. But all the games in this tournament will be difficult."

They will hope to have Wayne Rooney available for the third game, against Ukraine, with the striker's appeal against a three-game suspension to be heard in Nyon on Thursday. A Uefa committee will listen to the arguments put forward by the Manchester United forward, Capello and the FA's lawyers. The governing body are still to decide whether to ask Barry Bright, the FA representative on the committee, to sit out the appeal hearing due to his "interest" in the outcome. The same would be expected to apply to Bjorn Ahlberg, of Sweden, Patricia Moyersen, and Olga Zhukovska, of Ukraine.

"The sentence, three games, was too much for me and I hope the appeal will help us to reduce it," added Capello. "The appeal will be really important and I hope they understand our lawyer, what Rooney says and what I will say at the committee."

There was satisfaction expressed by the Sweden players Seb Larsson and Jonas Olsson that they will not face Rooney in the group stage. "It doesn't hurt that their most influential player is suspended," said the Sunderland midfielder. "But England still have a lot of great players."

England have actually suffered against all their group opponents, with Sweden having never been beaten in a competitive fixture. While the Swedish coach, Erik Hamren, claimed Capello's team were "up there with the big three, Spain, Holland and Germany", last month's friendly victory at Wembley was actually a first in 43 years against the Scandinavians.

France were the first opponents of Sven-Goran Eriksson's side at Euro 2004, prevailing 2-1 in Lisbon courtesy of two late goals from Zinedine Zidane, though it will be memories of Les Bleus' friendly win at Wembley last November that will trouble Capello more. The France coach, Laurent Blanc, said on Friday "There will be a favourite, England, and the three teams behind them have realistic hopes of qualifying."

Ukraine, meanwhile, inflicted one of Capello's two competitive defeats in qualification for the World Cup finals and their former Chelsea forward Andriy Shevchenko suggested he was pleased with the draw. "Luckily we avoided stronger opponents," he said. "But we will need all the support that our fans will give us to be a success."

The Republic of Ireland face difficult ties against Spain, Croatia and Italy in Group C – and a potential meeting with England in the quarter-finals if both sides progress – though Giovanni Trapattoni will draw some encouragement from the reality that his adopted side defeated his compatriots 2-0 in a friendly in Liège over the summer. They open their campaign against Croatia in Poznan on 10 June, with the Republic now expected to host England in a friendly in Dublin at the end of May or the beginning of June now that the teams have avoided each other at the finals.

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