England’s chances of starting their Euro 2016 campaign with a win have increased with the absence of several key members of Russia’s side due to injury. The second fixture in Group B in Marseille at 8pm on Saturday follows Wales’ meeting with Slovakia in Bordeaux earlier that day. Team’s first matches in tournaments are often tight, cagey affairs but England have a great chance to beat Russia by more than one goal and take control of the group. The Wales battle of Britain fixture can take care of itself and England must focus on beating Russia.
Slovakia are perceived as the weakest team in the section and based on FIFA rankings and favourites to finish fourth. Rankings can be flawed in identifying current form and Slovakia are unbeaten in eight matches. England wouldn’t want to need to beat the Slovaks in the third and final group match to progress. Qualification can be put to bed with two wins and that process can begin in the meeting with Russia. England have been slow starters in tournaments and that creates pressure. Hitting the ground running by winning the first match reduces the pressure. In an ideal world Wales and Slovakia would share the points and then England beat Russia.
The second part of that scenario has been made easier because the Russian coach will be missing Alan Dzagoev and Igor Denslov in midfield, two of his regulars in qualifying. Their absence weakens the threat posed by Russia and it would be a concern for England if they created chances when under strength. With the best four placed teams progressing to the next round goal difference could be a factor so a narrow defeat would not be a disaster for Russia. The key match in the group is between Wales and Russia as the winners of that contest can grab second place., assuming England win the group for which they are favourites.
The main selection dilemma for Roy Hodgson concerns Jack Wilshere. He has played very little football this season but the speed of his passing and movement makes for a more dynamic midfield. The latest betting on players to start the match against Russia suggests nine players are set in stone and that includes Wayne Rooney. The manager won’t abandon his captain and top scorer for the biggest match for England since the World Cup in 2014. Jamie Vardy and Harry Kane should be the strikers but Rooney can drop back and be effective from midfield.
Fabio Capello was a massive managerial failure with Russia despite being the highest paid coach at the last World Cup. The federation had to stump up a fortune to get rid of him and Russia’s fans and players probably think it was money well spent. The new coach has improved morale but the loss of two influential players will have had a negative effect on confidence. Russia lack dynamism and the centre backs were past their best some time ago. England have the strikers and creative players in midfield to take advantage of these deficiencies. Dele Alli has the vision to create chances for Kane and Vardy.
Once Capello was removed from his post at the cost of some millions performances improved. Russia finished second in their group behind Austria who are quietly fancied for Euro 2016. The new man’s team won the last four matches in qualifying, scoring 12 goals and conceding one. Age is against Russia as seven of the starting line up against Portugal in a friendly in November were over 30. England have the youngest squad in the tournament with fewer players than usual carrying baggage from previous disappointments. Youthful enthusiasm can overcome experience in the match between England and Russia.
That equation will be key to how far England progress in the tournament. The side has lightening-fast speed on the counter attack and the youngsters will not be inhibited by past failures. Whether the kids can handle a tournament and huge clashes later on when it matters most is open to debate. John Stones and Chris Smalling have the potential to form a solid centre-back partnership but both are unproven at the business end of tournaments or the Champions League. Russia will not be a huge test but it will be interesting to see how the England defence copes with Gareth Bale playing for Wales.
Russia have nationalised players from Germany and Brazil to compensate for the injuries that have hit the team hard. England have just about a clean bill of health and maybe only Danny Welbeck would have played if injury had not ruled him out of the tournament. Rooney and Co should have enough to start the tournament with a win and it could be achieved by more than one goal.