The national teams representing England in the last three major sports World Cups have not progressed from the group stage. However, the team playing in Euro 2016 have no excuses with four third teams qualifying and England given a relatively easy route to the last 16. The tie of the section is the match against Wales which sees the neighbours meet in a major tournament for the first time.
Russia and Slovakia are also in Group B and with both sides outside the top 20 in the world rankings England surely cannot fail again. However, the respective football, rugby and cricket squads underperformed in the recent world championships and stranger things have happened. The incentive to progress as the group winners is a match against one of the third place qualifiers in the next round.
The Republic of Ireland have drawn the short straw and will be playing in ‘le groupe de deces’ in France next summer. They will meet Belgium, Italy and Sweden in the first phase and are the outsiders of the four to qualify. However, manager Martin O’Neill knows that three points and third place could get them through and they qualified from a group that included Germany and Poland but they have a difficult assignment.
Northern Ireland must play those two teams in the group stage and Ukraine. Martin’s namesake Michael is optimistic and said after the draw: “It’s a tough group but we expected that regardless. Germany are the team we wanted least because we play them in World Cup qualifying as well. But we can be competitive. Playing Poland and Ukraine in our first two matches helps us, and then it’s a massive game against Germany in Paris”
The two Irish nations have benefited from the expansion of the finals to include 24 teams. Tournaments lend themselves to 16 or 32 qualifiers and the whole structure and format becomes chaotic when another eight teams compete. There will be six groups of four teams with the top two and four best third-placed sides advancing to the last 16 knockout round. Thirty-six of the 51 matches will be required to eliminate just one third of the competing nations.
According to the odds to qualify from the group Wales will be England’s second toughest opponents after Russia in the first round next summer. However, the odds do not reflect local rivalries and Wales are seven places above Russia in the FIFA standings. The Battle of Britain will be as much about motivation as ability and the Welsh could have the edge in that respect.
Chris Coleman has been in charge for almost four years since the passing of Gary Speed. He’s achieved a great deal by making a squad including several players from the Championship into a unit that makes up to more than its individuals. He has instilled a great team ethic and loyalty but it helps if you have the most expensive footballer in the world playing in every match.
Gareth Bale was the leading scorer in qualifying but also scores crucial goals in important wins. Wales finished second to Belgium in their group and that side are number one in the world. Wales only lost away to Bosnia and took four points from matches with Belgium. Bale scored the only goal in the home win and under a confident former player Wales can qualify for the knockout stages.
England should win the group and can even afford not to beat Wales and still qualify by finishing first in a relatively easy section. Russia were heading for elimination under Fabio Capello but called upon a steady but unglamorous experienced coach to ensure qualification. Slovakia did well to make the finals from a group that also included Spain who they beat once. They have qualified for the first time but England have the ability to beat Slovakia and Russia but beating Wales may be beyond them.
England are fourth favourites to win Euro 2016. They were embarrassed at the last World Cup and could not get out of the group like their cricket and rugby counterparts. Roy Hodgson would not survive another dire effort but the draw has worked in his favour and England can do well enough to keep him in the job until after the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Have a Super Sunday and enjoy today’s sport!