French fears of a resolute England display proved founded as Roy Hodgson's men resisted their opponents' second-half pressure to claim a 1-1 draw in Donetsk, Samir Nasri having earlier brought Les Bleus level.
Hit by injuries and missing the suspended Wayne Rooney, England upset many predictions by taking the lead as Joleon Lescott buried a close-range header on the half-hour. Hodgson had himself sprung a surprise by naming Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in his starting XI, but it was Nasri, briefly the Arsenal FC man's team-mate, who rounded off the evening's scoring close to half-time to leave these old rivals with a point apiece.
After all the talk of an essentially counterattacking approach, England made a bright start, stringing passes together and generally looking to build from the back – but appearances were soon revealed to be deceptive after Nasri began poking and probing. The Manchester City FC midfielder nearly found Karim Benzema with a lovely scooped pass over the defence and also fired narrowly wide from distance, before England's first real chance came from a quick break.
What a chance it was too as Scott Parker released Ashley Young, who in turn sent James Milner clear on goal, only for the midfielder to pull his shot wide having rounded Hugo Lloris. Joe Hart had to fling himself low to his left to deny Yohan Cabaye soon after, but England's pace on the counter was now earning caution from their opponents.
Their breakthrough came from an entirely different route to goal, however. With a strike reminiscent of Frank Lampard's opener against Les Bleus at UEFA EURO 2004, Lescott leapt to head in Steven Gerrard's free-kick from wide on the right. And France nearly followed up with an identikit effort, Diarra connecting powerfully with Nasri's delivery and forcing Hart into an excellent save – then angling his second header wide after Franck Ribéry had kept the danger alive.
England's relief was short-lived as Nasri curled a sublime shot inside club-mate Hart's near post from outside the area six minutes before half-time, Ribéry laying the ball back to him to crown an incisive move. The interval could not come soon enough for the men in white as France hunted a second, and the pressure continued afterwards as Hart narrowly beat Nasri to Milner's under-hit back pass.
In hot conditions, the game gradually become more attritional, although Benzema tested Hart with a thunderous drive from 25 metres and Parker blocked an even more blistering Florent Malouda attempt. England fans will have been fearing another comeback success from the French after Zinédine Zidane's late double in Portugal eight years ago, and Hart had to sprawl low to foil a Ribéry snapshot after he had evaded Lescott.
The openings were beginning to all fall France's way, and Danny Welbeck reacted superbly to deflect a volleyed Cabaye strike beyond the far corner. Aiming for the opposite angle with five minutes left, Benzema was then denied the winner by Gerrard's header. A repeat of the dramatic climax in Lisbon was averted, and, as he slid in to cut off a Milner cross late on, Philippe Mexès surely prevented Welbeck claiming revenge.