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Low expectations, Joe Hart and the five reasons why England can end France's 21-match unbeaten run at Euro 2012

Few people are giving England much of a chance in Poland and the Ukraine, which could work to its advantage.

There are old rivalries and then there are old rivalries. England and France qualifies as the latter.

Traditional enemies, foes, counterparts, whatever you want to call it for the better part of a 1,000 years, the histories of both and England and France will forever be linked, whether each likes it or not.

It was only fitting that when the two storied nations were drawn together in a group for Euro 2012 that the first match would pit The Three Lions and Les Bleus together for the 29th time since the two began playing the sport competitively over 100 years ago.

Often equals on the battlefield throughout much of the last millennium, it can't really be said that England has shown it's relative might on the pitch compared to its European brothers from the south, particularly over the last two decades. In that time, France has won a World Cup (1998) and a European Championship (2000), as well as another World Cup Final berth (2006) to England's dearth in all three.

Even lately, when the English Premier League has become arguably the most competitive and most popular of the continent's first divisions, France has shown it's quality on a national scale to a higher standard than the country that many believe birthed the sport as we know it today.

Coming into the first match of the tournament on a 21-match unbeaten run, France may not be blowing teams away like the armies of the great Napoleon did during the 18th century, but the consistency has been there and it comes into the tournament as favorites to win Group D, which also includes Sweden and the Ukraine.

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England on the other hand, despite having lost only once in its last 12, traveled to Eastern Europe in complete disarray, having seen its manager Fabio Capello recently resign, its former captain John Terry again mired in controversy, and a host of key players missing due to injury and suspension. "The English aren't happy unless they're miserable," George Orwell once said. Quite.

So with the expectations lower than they have been for a major international tournament in years and France's recent steadfast form and Louis XIV-like swagger, many have already cast the Brits aside like yesterday's black pudding.

Not so fast.

While things may appear to be in Les Bleus favor, England should never be underestimated and here are five reasons why Roy Hodgson's side will not only give France a match in Donetsk, but end that much-ballyhooed 21-match run with a victory to start its Euro 2012 campaign.



1. JOE HART, GOALKEEPER EXTRAORDINAIRE

Probably the only guaranteed starter in England's first team, Hart has cemented himself as the Three Lions' No.1 goalkeeper for years to come through his excellent play at Manchester City and dominating presence between the sticks.

A stellar athlete with amazing instincts, at only 25 years old, Hart hasn't even scratched the surface of what he's capable of. This is his first major tournament as England's first-choice keeper and he will take this experience with him as he progresses in his career.

The France frontline will be out to test Hart from the start of the match, but he's proven repeatedly that he has the confidence to succeed at this level (and skills to back it up). Leading England through an undefeated European qualification process, Hart knows exactly what's at stake and won't be shaken by the daunting expectations placed on his head.

If England is to do anything in this tournament, it'll start and end with how Hart plays.



2. STEVEN GERRARD, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC

England's captain armband has been thrown around more than 'true love' in Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet lately, as the likes of John Terry, Scott Parker and most recently Gerrard have had the honor of leading the Three Lions into battle. With the burdon officially on Gerrard's hands once more (he was captain of the side at the 2010 World Cup), it'll be up to the Liverpool lifer to set his team straight.

A versatile player with oodles of quality in all aspects of a central midfielder's game, Gerrard has clearly been one of the class players of the last decade, for both his club side Liverpool and England. With the 32-year-old fit and in form, England is undoubtedly a more formidable and imposing side. Well guess what? He's fit and in form.

If he's able to influence the proceedings in the center of the park like he so often does, France may struggle to contain him. Throw in the play of Scott Parker, who will be doing a lot of Gerrard's dirty work, and England could really find some joy in the middle.

Play aside, his leadership qualities really be essential as a team with as low expectations as England has right now needs all the mental boosts it can get. An early goal like the one against the USA in the World Cup opener would be 'fantastic'.



3. ENGLAND'S MISFITS WITH
SOMETHING TO PROVE

One thing England has in excess is players with something to prove. Given the intense media spotlight on every aspect of the lives of each of the 23 men included in Roy Hodgson's team, it's easy to see that some are presented in a better light than others.

The aforementioned duo of Hart and Gerrard are towards the more positive end of the spectrum and are joined by the likes of Ashley Cole and John Terry (for their play, anyway). From there, the squad is filled with those who have yet to make a name for themselves.

Case in point: Andy Carroll. Liverpool's £35 million man has yet to live up to his price tag at Liverpool, but started to come into his own towards the end of the season as he finally won some consistent playing time and the support of his peers. The same rings true for his time in an England shirt. Somewhat fortuitously handed a place in the team thanks to Wayne Rooney's two-match ban, Carroll could see himself starting up front alone against France. What better way to show you belong in the national set up than with a stellar performance against your country's longest-standing rival?

The list doesn't stop there though, James Milner, an outcast for most of the season at EPL-winning Manchester City may be looking for a move away from the Etihad in the summer and will want show he has the chops at the top level. He's almost guaranteed a start for Hodgson.

Ashley Young, Stewart Downing, Joleon Lescott... same story. Their place in the team in Euro 2012 and beyond is in no way set. Knocking off France would go a long way to endear themselves in the minds of Hodgson and the England faithful alike.



4. THE UNRELENTING ENGLISH
FIGHTING SPIRIT

This may seem like the most made up of the five, but it truly is something to behold. As France can attest in the countries long-standing military struggles over the years, England never gives up. The same rings true on the football pitch.

Try this stat on for size: England has only lost by more than two goals once in the last seven years and that came in the knockout round of the World Cup when it was downed 4-1 by Germany. The time it happened before that was in 2005 when Denmark beat it by the same score. The time before that? 1980.

Games rarely get out of hand when an England team is involved and that's for good reason - it doesn't allow it. Fighting until the last whistle, the Three Lions are relentless. Even France great Patrick Vieira, a man who is well-versed in English culture, thinks so.

"The English fighting spirit shall live on forever," Vieira said. "England can have a bad day, miss easy things, but they will always give 100 percent. It's in their culture. At training they never complain, if you ask for them to run around the pitch 40 times they won't stop at 39.

"They never give up, and this is basically what we saw with Manchester City, who were eight points behind United but carried on believing to win the title. Most players are foreign but the English spirit remains the same."

Against what many think is a better side in France, England will have no choice but to keep on its opponents for the entire match if it is to secure the vital three points.



5. LOW EXPECTATIONS ARE EXACTLY WHAT THE DOCTOR ORDERED

It is very rare that going into a major international competition that the English media and people have insisted that their national team should at the very least make the final and challenge for the trophy, however unrealisitic that target inevitably was. This year, it's different.

Like a rollercoaster coming off the tracks, the Three Lions have been in a tailspin since they qualified for the tournament and even the most ardent supporters have consigned themselves to what you could best describe as pragmatism in the case of this team. There isn't any clamoring for silverware or world-beating performances, they just want England to give England a good name.

If England can beat France, great. If not, the world won't end, like in previous years.

Not having that enormous weight dumped on their shoulders should be an immense boost for the players who can play a less restricted game, one where they know their best efforts will be applauded, in victory or defeat.

If England can affectively harness these five things (and a bit more) in its match with France, it will have a great opportunity to hold its age-old rival at arm's length once more, and that's just the way it likes it - whether it be the 21-miles of murky water at the thinnest part of the English channel or on the scroreboard at Donbass Arena on Donetsk.

Shane Evans is a Senior Editor of Goal.com USA. His feature, "The Full English" appears every Friday morning. Contact Shane at shane.evans@goal.com with questions, comments and concerns, follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/shanEvans

For more news on England, visit Goal.com's England section!

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