By Pascal Liétout
DONETSK (Reuters) - With almost a third of its players at Premier League clubs and a coach who played for Manchester United, the French Euro 2012 squad is well placed to judge the merits of England, the team's first Group D opponents on Monday.
France's trainer Laurent Blanc makes no secret of his admiration for and his interest in English soccer, where he played for two seasons from 2001-03 and where he won his last title as Premier League champions with United.
No less than seven of his 23-strong squad play for an English club and several of them have enjoyed great success this season.
Florent Malouda won the Champions League with Chelsea while Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy captured the league title with Manchester City.
At Newcastle United, Hatem Ben Arfa rediscovered his form after a long injury absence and Yohan Cabaye had a great debut season in England, securing his position as his team's key midfielder.
Things did not go as well for Patrice Evra, who saw Manchester United's title ambitions dashed in the final seconds of the league season, or for Laurent Koscielny, who had a solid season at centre back for an Arsenal team which once again failed to land a trophy.
But however their season went, all agree that it would be presumptuous to be blithely optimistic against an England team supposedly weakened by injuries and suspension.
"I expect a strong, solid team that will come at us," said Evra, the longest serving of the seven after six and a half seasons at United. "They are not going to give us anything.
"There is a lot of talk about how many injuries they have and the fact that they have just had a new manager. But look at what happened with (Roberto) Di Matteo at Chelsea - he came in late in the season and won the Champions League. So that means nothing."
Defender Evra believes the first game is crucial because it often determines what follows in a competition where the early stages are often tougher than at the World Cup.
"This is our most important match at Euro 2012. If we draw, the doubts start to set in. If we lose, we will already start to think we may be going home," added Evra, who himself played in France's disastrous group stage campaigns at the 2010 World Cup and at Euro 2008.
Clichy, his rival for the left back berth, is also wary of dismissing England's chances in advance. "We are looking at a team with players of great experience like John Terry and Steven Gerrard," he said. "They could practically play without a coach."
Clichy believes the absence through suspension of Wayne Rooney, England's main strike threat, gives France only a marginal advantage.
"That probably benefits us a little but they have so much quality it does not make much difference who plays or when," he said.
Koscielny described the game as like a final. "We know if we win, we will have every chance of qualifying from the group," he said.
Nasri, who plays with several members of the England team at Manchester City, said bragging rights were at stake and he did not want to be the butt of dressing room jokes next season.
"My team mates (Joe) Hart, (Joleon) Lescott and (James) Milner will be there so we just have to win," he said with a grin.
(Writing by Paul Radford; Editing by Justin Palmer)