England pay the price as Hodgson gamble backfires
Slovakia 0-0 England
All roads still lead to Paris for England, but the route to the final has now become so much more perilous after Roy Hodgson's selection gamble backfired and set his team on course for a potential quarter-final meeting with France after Slovakia refused to buckle.
Six changes to his starting line-up was a bold move by the England manager, but it failed to pay off.
England dominated throughout, but their failure to win ensures they progress to the knock-out stage only as runners-up in Group B.
A clash with the Group F runners-up in Nice now lies ahead next Monday. Win that and it will most likely be the hosts at the Stade de France in the quarter-finals. And then the Germans in the semi-finals.
The cost of failure here at the Stade Geoffroy Guichard, the scene of England's 1998 World Cup defeat against Argentina, looks set to be a heavy one.
England went into the game having won their three previous encounters with Slovakia, enjoying a 4-0 victory at Wembley in the most recent meeting in March 2009.
And having made such wholesale changes to his starting line-up - tight hamstrings were the reason for the omissions of Wayne Rooney and Kyle Walker - Hodgson knew that only another victory against the Slovaks would prevent criticism of his selection.
The England manager, keen to freshen his team ahead of the knock-out stages, also knew that the route to the final was much less hazardous for the group winners, so his changes were a gamble, despite the fact that each of the new faces were experienced Premier League stars.
However, this was not a team of novices, so Hodgson was justified in having faith in the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ryan Bertrand and Nathaniel Clyne to perform.
But his decision to shuffle his pack will have sent a message to Slovakia that England were not taking this game as seriously as they perhaps should, considering the ramifications of finishing first, second or third.
England started well, with Jamie Vardy flashing a left foot volley from Clyne's cross across the face of the Slovakia goal inside the opening five minutes. And aside from a Viktor Pecovsky effort moments later, which flew high and wide from 30 yards, England were able to keep Slovakia pinned back inside their own half.
Jordan Henderson, selected ahead of the rested Dele Alli, drove the England midfield with Wilshere struggling to make an impact.
Adam Lallana, who has started all three games so far in this tournament, was also having an impact and the Liverpool midfielder sparked the move which led to Daniel Sturridge having a close range shot blocked by Peter Pekarik, who was later forced to undergo lengthy treatment after having his nose broken by Bertrand's flailing elbow.
Lallana was England's biggest threat in the early stages, with one shot fired wide from Vardy's pass before the pair Lallana teed up Henderson to have a shot blocked.
Slovakia goalkeeper Matus Kozacik then produced two fine saves to keep his team level - denying Vardy with his legs after the Leicester City forward had raced onto Henderson's long pass before producing another block from Lallana.
England were knocking on the door, but a combination of dogged Slovakian defending and the unfortunate bounce of the ball kept them searching for the breakthrough as they went in level at the interval.
England's luck was summed up on 44 minutes when Henderson's perfectly-struck volley was blocked by the head of Jan Durica, who knew nothing about the shot until it hit him in the face.
Greg Dyke, the FA chairman, was watching from the stands alongside Prince William just 24 hours after suggesting that only reaching the semi-finals would be enough guarantee Hodgson's future as manager.
This was not the performance an England team heading for the last four. The effort was there, but the quality - the crucial elelemt at this level - continued to prove elusive.
Still, Slovakia were a huge disappointment, with Marek Hamsik and Vladimir Weiss offering little threat for Jan Kozak's team.
Half-time marked the fourth successive game that England have failed to score a first-half goal and with the second-half producing a low-key start, the chants of 'Rooney, Rooney' from the English supporters.
Hodgson initially turned a deaf ear, but a mix-up between Chris Smalling and Joe Hart, which almost let in Robert Mak to put Slovakia ahead - Smalling's poor awareness had left Hart exposed - raised the stakes and highlighted the threat posed a team who were growing into the game.
Rooney began to prepare himself to enter the field, but as the captain stripped on the sideline, Clyne went close to scoring after being released by Sturridge. So near, and yet so far once again. England were making the right moves, but they simply could not find the cutting edge.
Eleven minutes into the second-half, Wilshere made way for Rooney. The Arsenal midfielder is a favourite of Hodgson's, but his inability to influence this game highlighted his lack of match sharpness after missing almost the entire Premier League season through injury.
England certainly looked more threatening with Rooney on and Alli, who replaced Lallana, was inches away from scoring on 61 minutes when his effort from Henderson's cross was cleared off the line by Martin Skrtel, but they never really looked like breaking the deadlock.
Who is your sportstar of the year?
Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.
Prizes include, tickets to Ireland's against Scotland in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.
Independent News Service