With the European Championship less than three months away England fans will be hoping for better than the recent unsuccessful attempts in the competition in the last two decades. Saturday’s comeback in Berlin, in which the Three Lions came from two goals down to win 3-2 against world champions Germany has left many fans excited and expectant at their team’s chances in the finals. Many will be dreaming of going far in a competition in which they have only reached the last four once in the last 48 years.
However, England will have to progress through a potentially challenging Group B which includes neighbours Wales as well as Russia and Slovakia. The draw was kind to England but it will be far from easy as all three teams provide different challenges for Hodgson’s men and have the ability to spring a surprise. Nevertheless, with potentially three teams progressing from each group it is difficult to see England not reaching the last 16.
Chris Coleman’s side heroically secured their first appearance in a major tournament since 1958, finishing just two points behind the highly-rated Belgium. A fantastic qualifying campaign that included a nine-game unbeaten streak and taking four points off Belgium displayed that they are a force to be reckoned with.
Many see Wales as a one-man team in Gareth Bale, but their campaign showed that the side are far from this. Swansea captain Ashley Williams performed well and led a stubborn and resilient defence; Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey put in an exceptional performance; Reading’s Hal Robson-Kanu played an important part in the team’s success.
However, the Real Madrid forward’s influence cannot be underestimated as he earned more points for his nation than any other player in European Qualifying with his goals. The side are the highest rated of England’s opponents in the FIFA World Rankings, sitting in 17th place.
The Welsh will be a tough test for England and the meeting between the sides will certainly be a great spectacle. In terms of history, Wales have not beaten England since 1984 and have failed to score in the last four match-ups between the two, losing all four. They will be hoping for a change in this against their ‘old enemy’.
Manager: Chris Coleman Coleman is an experienced player and manager, but some argue that his lack of experience in international tournaments could be a problem. The 45-year-old took over as manager after the tragic suicide of legend and close friend Gary Speed.
He almost left his post after a tumultuous start to his tenure after becoming the first Wales manager to lose his opening five but opted to stay in the role. Wales disappointed in their 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign but the country’s fortune was to change dramatically under Coleman’s leadership. The Swansea-born manager took many deserved plaudits for his leading of Wales in their first successful qualifying campaign in years and will certainly relish the opportunity to lead his country in France.
Leonid Slutsky performed a miracle to help Russia seal second place in the last four games of their group ahead of Sweden after a shaky start to their qualifying campaign. They began qualifying with a comfortable 4-0 win over Liechtenstein. However, performances became much more questionable under former England manager Fabio Capello, after a 1-0 defeat to an impressive Austria and two 1-1 draws with Sweden and minnows Moldova.
Capello’s side were gifted a default 3-0 win against Montenegro after fan violence, but a 1-0 loss at home to Austria saw the end of his tenure as manager as they looked destined for a 3rd place finish. However, the appointment of CSKA Moscow manager Slutsky turned out to be a stroke of genius. The 44-year-old led Russia to four consecutive wins including a vital 1-0 win over Sweden and a 7-0 hammering of Liechtenstein. Russia sealed second place with a 2-0 win over Montenegro.
The squad may not be the most notable in Russian history but it contains many players capable of making a serious impact. Artyom Dzyuba poses a serious goal-scoring threat and the striker found the net eight times in qualifying. Zurich’s Aleksandr Kerzhakov and Zenit St. Petersburg’s Aleksandr Kokorin also provide attacking prowess. In addition, Sergei Ignashevich, Igor Akinfeev and Yuri Zhirkov all provide masses of international experience.
In terms of head-to-head the two sides have met just twice since the break-up of the Soviet Union, both sides have a win each and England’s defeat in Russia was part of the infamous failed 2008 Euro qualifying campaign under Steve McClaren.
Jan Kozak’s side were definitely one of the surprise packages in qualifying as they finished second to Spain. Slovakia, whose international experience is sparse, started their qualifying campaign with two impressive victories—a 1-0 win in Kiev, followed by a 2-1 win over Spain in Bratislava. These victories were followed by a further four successive victories as they cemented their position at the top of the group. However, a credible 2-0 defeat in Spain saw La Furia Roja overtake them.
Two disappointing results followed as Slovakia drew 0-0 at home to Ukraine and lost 1-0 at home to Belarus. Despite this their campaign ended on a positive note with a 4-2 win in Luxembourg. This ensured Slovakia’s first ever appearance in the European Championship. Their key players include Napoli’s Marek Hamsik who scored five times in qualifying and captain Martin Skrtel who, despite poor form for Liverpool, has the potential to be a key figure.
Due to the country’s short history as an independent footballing nation, England have limited experience against them, playing them on just three occasions. The Three Lions came out on top each time.
Jan Kozak: Kozak, like Coleman, has little international experience in management with the majority of his managerial career being involved in his home country. However, as a player, Kozak will have fond memories of the 1980 European Championship as he helped Czechoslovakia to a third place finish after beating Italy in the third place play-off.