England once again failed to start a major tournament with victory as Vasili Berezutski’s stoppage-time header gave Russia a draw they barely deserved in the Stade Velodrome.
Roy Hodgson’s side were dominant and fully merited the lead given to them when Eric Dier crashed a 20-yard free-kick high past keeper Igor Akinfeev with 17 minutes left.
Hodgson then removed man of the match Wayne Rooney, who had earlier seen a shot pushed superbly on to the post by Akinfeev, and replaced him with Jack Wilshere to preserve England’s advantage.
It was a move that failed when Russia snatched a point – and extended England’s record of never starting a European Championship with a win – two minutes into four minutes of stoppage time, Berezutski soaring above Danny Rose at the far post to send Georgi Schennikov’s header looping over keeper Joe Hart.
The final whistle was the cue for more of the violence that has marred the build-up to this fixture, as Russian fans appeared to charge at English supporters behind the goal where Berezutski scored.
England manager Roy Hodgson got plenty right with a positive selection and the decision to play Rooney in midfield reaped a rich reward – but his boldest move may also have been his biggest mistake.
He removed Rooney straight after Dier’s goal and introduced Wilshere in an attempt to retain possession, but Rooney was the player giving England control and while it was a warm night in the south of France, the 30-year-old looked fresh and fit for the fight.
True, it was a sucker punch that cost England victory but experience is needed to close out crucial wins and ultimately they did not manage it.
England should have had enough against a very ordinary Russia to complete the job but Rooney’s removal robbed them of his craft and guidance and now increases the pressure on Thursday’s meeting with Wales in Lens.
In Hodgson’s defence, it must be stated that in large parts this was a vibrant, energetic performance with the emphasis almost exclusively on attack.
England were hugely impressive in the first half in particular, when their supporters inside this magnificent bowl at Stade Velodrome roared their approval as Russia were pressed into submission and made to look pedestrian.
It made that cruel conclusion even more painful.
Rooney’s midfield masterclass
Rooney was the subject of some mischievous probing from the Russia media before the game as they suggested his retreat into midfield was a measure of his declining powers.
England’s captain insisted he did not have to defend himself to them – and the midfield masterclass he delivered here was the most eloquent answer he could give.
Rooney’s display must be placed in context. It came against a very poor Russia side who allowed him time and space he may not get against Wales until they exerted a measure of control in the second half.
He was, however, the orchestrator of this England performance as he showed maturity and an impressive range of passing to set off a succession of attacks, especially in the first 45 minutes.
The Manchester United man drew applause from England’s fans for defensive work and could have had a goal when Russia keeper Akinfeev produced a stunning save to turn his shot on to the upright.
He still has his detractors but this was a show of quality that demonstrated plenty of the old powers remain intact.