England kick off their quest for Euro 2016 glory on Saturday evening when they come up against Russia at Marseille’s Stade Vélodrome.
With the tournament being expanded to allow 24 teams to qualify for the group stages, both sides have added incentive to try and win their opening game. If England or Russia were to win Group B, they would come up against the third placed side from either Group A, C or D in the last sixteen.
England, though, have never won their opening game at a European Championship, but will be hoping their luck changes on Saturday. The Three Lions may boast the oldest manager at the tournament, but 68-year-old Roy Hodgson has named a 23-man squad that is the joint youngest. The average age of the side travelling across the Channel is just over 25, the same as World Champions Germany.
Hodgson will be pleased that there are no major injury concerns ahead of the opening game, with Chris Smalling, Gary Cahill and Ryan Bertrand having overcome minor knocks during the week. For Russia, however, it is a completely different story. Key midfielders Alan Dzagoev and Igor Denisov – of CSKA Moscow and Dynamo Moscow respectively – suffered injuries to end their tournament before it had begun.
Russia are therefore far from favourites, and England fans will be hoping their stars can dispatch of their opponents in routine fashion. Having come through the qualifiers with a 100% record, England are one of the form teams at the competition. It is maybe a surprise, therefore, that the Three Lions haven’t been mentioned as one of the favourites to win the whole thing.
That may benefit England, though, as they aim to end 50 years without a major trophy by clinching their first European Championship crown. It’s an exciting squad and all eyes will be on the performances of some of the less experienced names in the squad. Mixed in with the likes of Joe Hart, Gary Cahill, James Milner and skipper Wayne Rooney – all seasoned international players – Hodgson can call upon the raw talent of Dele Alli, his dependable Tottenham teammate Eric Dier, and the two players that topped the Barclays Premier League goalscoring charts last season – Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy.
After such impressive seasons, those players will want to take their form into the Euros, but they will have to be careful not to fall into the same category as players like Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard – two players that invariably had superb seasons at club level but couldn’t replicate it on the international stage.
In Hart, England have arguably their safest pair of hands in goal since David Seaman, whilst record goalscorer and captain Rooney will be looking to light up the Euros in the same kind of manner he did 12 years ago in Portugal. There are still question marks over England’s defence, with the players themselves even recognising they have a point to prove after previous shaky performances, but this is an exciting England squad.
In the opposing dugout, Russia coach Leonis Slutsky is the youngest boss at the tournament and this will be his first major tournament as an international manager. He is coming up against a wily competitor and will know that the key to getting a result against England could lie in frustrating them. Bruising striker Artem Dzyuba scored 8 of Russia’s 18 goals in qualifying – assisting one other – and will be their key man in Marseille. The Russians are always tricky opponents and if they can restrict England’s gameplay there is no reason to suggest they cannot pull off a shock win.
England will be going into the game full of confidence and optimism, but should underestimate their opponents at their own peril. Slutsky and co are not in France to make up the numbers and the tactical battle between the two sides should make for a cracking encounter.