The actual probability was only 50-50, but somehow it always felt inevitable that England would be paired with a fellow British Isles member in the group stage of Euro 2016.
In the end it was Wales drawn next to Roy Hodgson’s team in Group B. And it is arguably the most dangerous of their neighbors that England will now be facing. Disciplined without the ball, as shown by conceding just four goals in 10 qualifying matches, Wales also have two players who would be undoubted stars in England’s ranks. Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey will pose a major threat, as will the extra motivation Chris Coleman’s men will surely have going up against England, and in their first major tournament in 58 years, to boot.
But there is a danger of focusing too much on a clash with Wales that will undoubtedly dominate the press coverage back home. A warning should be heeded from Euro 2000, when the buildup to the event in England was dominated by a group meeting with Germany. Kevin Keegan’s men would delight in beating their long-standing foes, the problem was that either side of it were defeats to Portugal and Romania, leaving both England and Germany to be sent packing at the earliest opportunity.
In truth, such an outcome looks less of a danger this time. First, of course, there is the fact that the expanded format of 24 teams means that four of the six third-placed teams will go through to the Round of 16, and a single victory may well be enough. Also, it has to be said, Russia and Slovakia do not possess the same quality of Portugal and Romania circa 2000.
Slovakia have won 14 of their last 18 matches, including a victory over reigning European champions Spain in qualifying. Yet, although they will be difficult to break down, England had plenty of success against similar opposition in winning all 10 matches in qualification. With Russia, England are denied the chance to go up against their former manager, after Fabio Capello’s unhappy spell in charge of Russia was brought to an end in July. CSKA Moscow coach Leonid Slutsky has taken the job on a part-time basis and guided them to France with four-straight victories. Still, with a squad lacking in inspiration and with an especially creaky defense, there is little to unduly concern England in their opening match.
England’s perfect record in qualifying flattered a player pool that is far from outstanding, but their shortcomings really shouldn’t be unduly exposed in Group B.
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