England, Russia, Wales, Slovakia
Without any doubt England are the big favourites in Group B and a highly rated contender for the European title. For the “Three Lions” performed brilliantly in the qualification, and also won a friendly at reigning World Cup champions Germany at Easter. Their competitors in the group, Russia, English neighbours Wales and Slovakia are less strong. The Russians as the hosts of the next World Cup want to make a good impression and will possibly battle with Slovakia for second place. Wales are the outsiders of the group, but with Real Madrid striker Gareth Bale they boast one of the superstars of world football.
It is often said that the Premier League would impede the development of the English national team. But this can hardly be true if you look at the past two years. After the failure at the World Cup in Brazil the team coached by Roy Hodgson went on an impressive run. Ten wins in ten qualifying matches against Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino, along with good results in friendly matches, boosted the hopes in the mother country of football to reach at least the semi-finals of the European Championship, last achieved on home soil in 1996. The attack in particular has become the trump card of the English: Tottenham’s Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy of champions Leicester both scored more than 20 goals in the Premier League. And behind that duo are further strong offensive players such as Dele Alli (Tottenham). Only captain Wayne Rooney is still chasing European Championship form after injury problems and a complicated season with Manchester United. “I still have a few good years in me”, said the 30-year-old. England’s return to Europe’s top would be a dream come true for him too.
Prognosis: Semi-finals possible
Russia are the successors or the core of an old power in football, the USSR, that celebrated success with the first ever European title in 1990, as 1988 finalists in Germany, and gold medallists at the 1956 and 1988 Olympics. And eight years ago they also performed brilliantly under the direction of coach Guus Hiddink, when they defeated the Netherlands after extra time in the quarter-finals and were stopped only by Spain in the semis at the European Championship in Switzerland and Austria. In 2010 after the failed World Cup qualification, Dutchman Hiddink was replaced by fellow-countryman Dick Advocaat, who in turn was succeeded by Italian Fabio Capello. When contracting this successful coach the demands increased, but the team were ousted in the first round at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. In the qualification for the 2016 European Championship a win was followed by three matches without a victory. Capello was criticised and ultimately lost his job. Improvements were registered only after the departure of the controversial Italian coach and successor Leonid Sluzki took control. The “Sbornaia” booked their ticket behind group winners Austria, against whom Russia had twice lost 1-0. The squad consists of players who almost all play in the Russian Premier Liga, headed by Artem Dzyuba of Zenit St. Petersburg who scored eight goals during the qualification. Prior to the Europeans Schalke’s Roman Neustaedter also joined the squad. The defensive player was born in Ukraine at the time of the Soviet Union and assumed Russian citizenship.
Prognosis: Moscow demands at least second position in the group, quarter-finals will be maximum.
Ian Rush, Ryan Giggs, Mark Hughes – they were footballers who fascinated not just the English-speaking world of football. But these former top stars never had the opportunity to compete at a major tournament. With the Welsh national team they never had a real chance to participate at a European Championship or World Cup finals. But Gareth Bale has achieved just that. The most expensive player in the world – Real Madrid paid 100 million Euros to Tottenham – goaded the team to participation with just one defeat in the qualification. The third-oldest Football Association in the world will now experience its European Championship debut on 11 June. Wales appear on the big stage for the first time since the 1958 World Cup; the opening match against Slovakia will be followed by the “Battle of Britain”. That’s what some media in the British Isles have dubbed the encounter between Wales and England. Despite some Premier League professionals such as Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal FC, Bale is the absolute focal point in the Welsh team. The quick striker, who earned his first Welsh cap at the age of 16, scored seven of the altogether eleven goals in the qualification, during which coach Chris Coleman’s team suffered just one defeat.
Prognosis: With typical British passion the round of 16 could be achieved.
There are triumphant victories in the recent past which put Slovakia in the focus of the football world. That was the 3-2 victory over Italy at the 2010 World Cup finals. The Slovaks thus contributed to the then reigning World Cup champions’ early elimination in South Africa. Then a 2-1 win against Spain, the 2008 and 2012 European champions, at the start of the qualification for EURO 2016. The team coached by Jan Kozak breathed down the Spaniards’ necks until the end, finishing second just one point behind the Iberians and bringing the Slovaks their first ever participation at a European Championship finals. “I expect us to be tough opponents”, Kozak said. Key players are Marek Hamsik of SSC Naples, who scored five goals in the qualifiers, Martin Skrtel of Liverpool FC and Peter Pekarik of Hertha BSC Berlin. The team have a tight defence, but the attack is often weak.
Prognosis: Anything else but a first-round elimination would be a surprise.
Saturday, 11 June, 18.00 hrs, Bordeaux: Wales vs Slovakia
Saturday, 11 June, 21.00 hrs, Marseille: England vs Russia
Wednesday, 15 June, 15.00 hrs, Lille: Russia vs Slovakia
Thursday, 16 June, 15.00 hrs, Lens: England vs Wales
Monday, 20 June, 21.00 hrs, Saint Etienne: Slovakia vs England
Monday, 20 June, 18.00 hrs, Toulouse: Russia vs Wales