Euro 2016 Group B Preview
With Group B being home to England and Wales, it is hard to not feel slightly sorry for Russia and Slovakia, as the highlight of the group looks set to be the game against two of our home nations. England are undoubtedly the team with the most quality of the four, but that quality hasn’t always been showcased, particularly in the major tournaments. Group B of Euro 2016 will get underway on June 11th, with Wales taking on Slovakia, followed by England battling Russia on the same day.
Twenty years after England were defeated by Germany in the semi-final of Euro 96; it is arguably the first time since that we might actually make it that far once again (maybe I’m being slightly optimistic). Gone are the days of Roy Hodgson’s rigid 4-4-2 formations which lacked fluidity and creativity, as we have been welcomed with a change of approach from the English manager. Despite his stubbornness, much to my annoyance especially when it comes to Wayne Rooney, Hodgson has finally changed his system to accommodate free-flowing attacking football.
Hodgson’s England can play in a bold 4-3-3 system or go for the midfield diamond that was so effective when they came from 2-0 behind to win 3-2 in Germany recently. The team showed that night they can be exciting and there is potential for a side featuring both Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy, with Dele Alli in the number 10 role to worry defences.
The ongoing debate is how Wayne Rooney will fit into the England team when Kane and Vardy finished last season as the Premier League’s top scorers, managing the same number between them – 49 – as the entire Manchester United team put together. Rooney started England’s last friendly against Portugal at the tip of the diamond, however in a position usually occupied by 20-year-old Dele Alli, neither player was utilised to the best of their ability. The England manager said he regarded Rooney as integral to his squad for the finals in France, even if his form was being questioned. But there is no obvious solution if he wants to keep him in the team yet shoehorn in the players who showed the best form last season. Of course the United striker should be travelling to France, there is no doubt about that, but a place in the starting 11 is questionable.
If Rooney is to start for England, Hodgson should consider playing his experienced striker in a deeper role, off Harry Kane for example. However, in the friendly against Germany, it was evident that England were much more creative without the Manchester United man.
Surprisingly, you may recognise a couple of Slovakia’s first team players. With Liverpool’s Martin Skrtel leading the back line and Napoli’s attacking midfielder Marek Hamsik orchestrating the attack, Slovakia could be the underdogs of Group B.
The Slovakian’s qualified for the tournament for the first time as an independent nation after defeating both Spain and Ukraine in their group. Despite going unnoticed, they coasted their way to a place in the group stages in France. Slovakia possesses a good mix of experience and youth in a squad that could shock us. It would be unfair to discount them.
A recent friendly win against Germany, to add to their group win over Spain, suggests they will fancy themselves to progress.
Chris Coleman’s Wales will be making an appearance at their first ever European Championship finals this summer and also their first appearance in a major tournament since the 1958 World Cup. In a qualifying group that included Belgium, who Wales never lost to, Coleman’s side will have gained confidence from their performances in the ten qualifying matches.
In Gareth Bale, Wales possess one of the biggest global football players, recognisable to the world. During qualifying, the Welsh scored just 11 goals with only Albania scoring fewer. Real Madrid star Bale scored seven of them, proving that if the opposition can find a way of stopping him, you can stop the Welsh.
James Collins, Ashley Williams and Neil Taylor are all experienced Premier League defenders, and that experience should allow them to deal with most of what the attackers in this group throw at them. The midfield trio of Liverpool’s Joe Allen, Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey should supplement star man Gareth Bale well, and in Joe Ledley Wales have a reliable engine in midfield.
Overall Wales seem to possess enough quality to at least finish 2nd in the group, especially if they can win their opening game. If they do qualify for the knockout rounds, they could then faced with a mouth-watering tie with either Portugal, Spain or Germany in the last-16.
Russia, the team most decorated in terms of European Championship success, certainly have the capabilities in their squad led by the experienced Leonid Slutsky to do well in this group, as the pressure is shifted onto England.
Russia do however go into the tournament with an aging defence well past its sell by date. Centre backs Sergei Ignashevich and Aleksei Berezutski, 36 and 33 respectively, are known to struggle with the speed of pacey attackers which could be a dent in any Euro hopes they have.
Overall quality is absent for the next World Cup hosts, yet they do have Schalke midfielder Roman Neustädter in their ranks, who will no doubt give them an element of sturdiness in the middle of the park. In addition Artem Dzyuba is also flying into France on the back of fine goal scoring form for Zenit Saint Petersburg.
Ultimately it is hard to see Russia having a real impact on the tournament as a whole, but they will be expecting themselves to at least get out of the group.
In all honesty, don’t expect that many goals to be scored in Group B. You’d expect Harry Kane to have the best shot of being the group’s highest scorer; however with Hodgson still not showing who is likely to lead the line for England both Jamie Vardy and Wayne Rooney will no doubt be in with a shout.
On the other hand, Gareth Bale is obviously a threat in front of goal depending on where Coleman deploys him and how well the opposition deal with his obvious attacking threat. If anyone will challenge a British group top scorer, it will no doubt be Russia’s Artem Dzyuba, who as well as his aforementioned decent club form, bagged eight goals in qualifying.
Who will qualify?
There isn’t any doubt that England’s young lions can top the group if they play to their full potential. Yet, with question marks about their defence and recent failings in major tournaments, the onus will certainly be on the talent up front to fire them through.
It’s certainly an England team that will benefit from dispatching the Russians in their opener, to gain a confidence boast to carry forward to the rest of their group games and beyond.
Behind them, the second qualifying position is wide open, you would assume. All three remaining teams have a realistic chance to progress, with the possibility of a best third place team coming from this group too. You’d think that Wales have enough talent and passion in their squad to have a real chance, if they can find goals from other sources than Bale.
Speaking of whom, in what could be tight battle to join England, having the match-winning potential of Bale up their sleeve should give the Welsh the edge. If the Welsh had a legit striker, you could have made a serious case for them potentially topping the group.
Slovakia will fear no one and they should progress, if they don’t get caught up in the occasion.
Villa Connection to the Group
Former Villans James Milner and Gary Cahill have both been named in Hodgson’s final 23 man squad, whilst James Collins of Wales will also be in the thick of the action.
Only a few years ago Villa would have had two or three players in the England squad, as well as other internationals scattered across the tournament. It’ll be interesting to see if new Villa boss Roberto Di Matteo will bring in any talent that catches his eye in the Euros. The big problem he’ll have though is will they want to play for a Championship team?
Times are certainly different now as a Villa fan, but at least we can perhaps enjoy a summer of football without any disappointment.
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