England would undoubtedly have been pleased to avoid Italy, who joined Russia in pot 2 of the draw, following their defeats to the Azzurri in the quarter-finals of Euro 2012 and in the group stages of last year’s World Cup. However, England will approach their opening fixture of the Championships in France with caution in light of their last encounter with Russia; the Russians defeated England in a Euro 2008 qualifying tie in Moscow in October 2007, as they went on to pip the Three Lions to qualifying for the tournament in Austria and Switzerland.
Leonid Slutsky’s side boast a number of players who have the potential to cause England serious problems next summer. Striker Artem Dzyuba was among Europe’s top scorers in the qualifying campaign (8) and has an impressive scoring record for both club and country, while attacking midfielder Alan Dzagoev was joint top scorer at Euro 2012 with three goals.
However, Roy Hodgson will certainly be eyeing up three points in their opening fixture given that Russia have a recent history of disappointing on the big stage. Although they reached the semi-finals of Euro 2008, they have exited at the group stages of four of the last five tournaments they have qualified for. Even in qualifying they showed signs of the occasion getting to them; they drew their home tie against minnows Moldova, whose only other point came in a 1-1 draw against Liechtenstein.
However, Russia have showed signs of turning a corner and developing some consistency since Slutsky replaced Fabio Capello as manager in August. Both teams will be keen to make strong start in France as they look to seize control of Group B.
In one of the most eagerly anticipated ties of the competition, Wales will be hoping to make their mark in their first major finals appearance in 58 years. Chris Coleman’s side enjoyed an incredible qualifying campaign that saw them defeat Belgium - currently the top ranked team in international football - and suffer just a single defeat.
Their defence also impressed as they conceded just four goals in the ten qualifying matches; only England, Spain and Romania had a better defensive record. As expected, Gareth Bale was their main threat in attack with seven goals, and the Real Madrid man will be key if Wales are to pull off their first victory over England since 1984.
England’s World Cup group game against Uruguay in Sao Paulo last year, where Luis Suarez scored twice to inflict a crucial defeat on Hodgson’s side, proved that England remain vulnerable against world class opponents. If Bale, along with Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey, stay fit and in-form while the Welsh defence remains solid, England will be tested to the limit in Lens.
The Three Lions should not be too phased by the extra pressure of facing their British rivals, as they have won seven of their past ten encounters against the Home Nations. However, their defeat to Northern Ireland in Belfast in 2005 serves as a timely reminder of the unpredictability of these fixtures.
England’s 100% record against Slovakia thus far would suggest their final group game in Saint-Etienne should be fairly routine. However, although this will only be Slovakia’s second major tournament appearance, they have already shown great potential on the world stage.
At the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, they defeated then World Champions Italy to knock them out at the group stages and progress to the last 16, where they were narrowly beaten by eventual finalists the Netherlands. Though they missed out on qualification for Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup, they defied the odds again in qualifying for Euro 2016 when they handed Spain their only defeat of the campaign.
There are also some familiar faces in their side. Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel is the current captain, while former Rangers and Bolton loanee Vladimir Weiss came joint top of the assists chart in qualifying with six. However, most eyes are likely to be on attacking midfielder Marek Hamsik. The Napoli man was top scorer for Jan Kozak’s team in qualifying with five goals, and has attracted interest from some of Europe’s biggest clubs in recent years. As with Gareth Bale and Wales, England’s defence will need to be on top form to keep Hamsik and Slovakia at bay.
What are England’s Euro 2016 Prospects?
And what of England themselves? The pressure will be on Roy Hodgson to deliver a successful tournament after the disappointing first round exit at last year’s World Cup. He could not have asked for a better response in qualifying as England won all ten of their matches - the only team to do so. Some of their most aspiring players -such as Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley and Harry Kane - showed glimpses of promise during the campaign and Hodgson will be hoping they can take further strides forward with their clubs ahead of the tournament in France next summer.
It will also be a pivotal tournament for captain Wayne Rooney. The 30-year-old enjoyed another successful qualifying campaign with seven goals and made history by becoming England’s top goalscorer with his goal against Switzerland in September. However, the pressure will be on Rooney to replicate his form from his debut tournament 12 years ago at Euro 2004, particularly if his current dip in form for Manchester United continues until the end of the season.
With increasing competition for places up front and frustration at Rooney’s struggles on the big stage for his country, his place in the starting XI may be placed under scrutiny if he endures another difficult tournament. This may particularly be the case if Hodgson is replaced as manager after the tournament. As Steve McClaren’s decision to drop David Beckham from the squad in 2006 proved, new managers can often take drastic action to kick-start their regimes.
The general consensus appears to be that this will be a tournament too soon for England’s largely inexperienced squad to consider themselves serious contenders. However, reaching the latter stages of the Championships must be the objective if their squad is to truly develop on the international stage.