Monday, June 11
By Nick Ames in Donetsk
Sun, streams - and giant slagheaps. That’s the strange, otherworldly backdrop before which England and France will emerge this evening here in Donetsk.
Approaching the gleaming Donbass Arena is an assault on the senses, especially in scorching heat that shows no sign of letting up. Pristine lawns, rock gardens and waterfalls are arranged around its perimeter - but a quick glance beyond yields a vast panorama that leaves no doubt about what really makes this mining city tick.
Inside, a labyrinth of black and orange corridors - the colour of local team Shakhtar - eventually leads to a spacious auditorium. Roy Hodgson and Laurent Blanc both held court there in relaxed fashion yesterday, the latter at some length.
I asked Blanc whether Laurent Koscielny was close to displacing centre-back pair Philippe Mexes and Adil Rami. “There you see the difference between the English and French media,” he laughed, referring to the fact that I’d been careful to respect the incumbent duo in my question, before explaining that Laurent will not start tonight.
Nor will Theo Walcott, according to the word around the England camp, but he and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain both seemed in good spirits in the 15 minutes of their training session that were open to the media yesterday. Theo shared a joke with Joleon Lescott as the players warmed up, while Alex could be seen in discussion with Ashley Cole and John Terry.
It’s hard to see Theo, in particular, remaining on the bench for 90 minutes. Blanc made a point of expressing wariness at England’s potential to exploit space left behind his defence, and that could play into the Arsenal forward's hands as the game wears on.
Theo has previous right here, of course, for scoring exactly the kind of goal Blanc fears – remember that delightfully-taken strike against Shakhtar in November 2010?
There are a couple of other Arsenal links in the England set-up, of course. Ex-Gunners stalwarts Gary Lewin and Ian Beasley are the national team’s head physio and doctor respectively. Both looked on from the sidelines, but the most audible member of England’s staff was Gary Neville, who appears to have taken to his new coaching role with relish.
Donetsk is harder around the edges than Kharkiv, even if its Soviet edifices are swathed in blankets of greenery. The process of checking into my lodgings certainly recalled times past, the receptionist spending a lengthy amount of time on the telephone to the Ukrainian immigration department discussing the number it had stamped into my passport.
There aren’t many England fans here. A walk through the heart of the city last night was taken through eerie quietness, the like of which I’ve never seen at a major tournament. The majority are camping several miles outside the city, but those who made it into Donetsk’s fairly featureless centre had converged upon the Golden Lion pub. Even then, it wasn’t packed to the rafters.
Before yesterday’s press conference, we were informed that 724 tickets for tonight’s game were still available at the stadium - if you’re reading this on Monday morning, you probably still have time.
Now, back to the Donbass Arena - and hopefully a spot of lunchtime sunbathing on those luscious lawns before things get serious. It’s a stunning amphitheatre for one of European football’s truly big games, and certainly fit for one of Arsenal’s three representatives to make a decisive impact during the 90 minutes.
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