France and England have met before in the “Nations Cup” – they exchanged flags afterwards and they’ve never reverted….

Alan Shearer, the former England striker, has predicted a semi-final place for Roy Hodgson’s side, because he is patriotic and wants them to do well. That doesn’t sound like an “expert” opinion but more a case of wishful thinking. He also knows that the reason expectations are low is because people realize that England have no chance.

And they are right, because England’s squad, depleted and inadequate, will struggle to get out of Group D. Euro 2012 may be a massive “wake-up call” for the Football Association. Years of erosion and two decades of over-indulgence by the big clubs, who have no regard for the state of the national game – why else would their youth teams be full of foreigners? – have taken their toll. The English game is in peril and unless someone starts to restrict the “hired gun –foreign legion” approach to team-building, we will be reduced to seeing the natonal team feeding off the scraps. Hang on, isn’t that what’s happening? – look at the current squad.

Hodgson, a decent and honest manager, has received blow after blow since taking the poison challis on. Notwithstanding the enforced absence of Cahill, Barry and Lampard, he also has the undignified Rio Ferdinand affair to contend with.

Hodgson will face France, Sweden and Ukraine with a squad that barely looks capable of winning a game, let alone topping the group.  France have the potential to do that, with Franck Ribery of Bayern Munich and Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema in their ranks. The latter has had a great season with Jose Mourinho and could be the man to set the group alight.

Laurent Blanc has rebuilt France after a disappointing World Cup in 2010. He’s also got Patrice Evra of Manchester United, promising Rennes midfielder Yann M’Vila and Manchester City’s Samir Nasri. They should have enough to get through the initial stages.

Joint-hosts  Ukraine, should they recover from a squad-wide stomach upset, may capitalize on home advantage. Coach Oleg Blokhin has a talented front man in Andriy Yarmolenko of Dynamo Kyiv – dubbed “the new Shevchenko”, and he also has the old one in the Ukraine squad. Expectation will be high and with the hosts’ boisterous support, they may provide one of the enduring images of Euro 2012.

And so Sweden, who are always difficult opponents. They qualified as best group runner-up, winning eight of their 10 games. They didn’t qualify for the last World Cup. They have Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is always worth watching and he has been in excellent form. They may have to settle for a battle for third place with England.

France and Ukraine are our tips for the top two, with England edging the that battle for third. Man to watch: Karim Benzema (France).