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Euro 2016 Preview: Group B – The Group of Very British Problems

The second of our Euro 2016 previews covers Group B. England and Wales will battle it out for British supremacy, while Slovakia and Russia look to beat them to the knockout rounds.

by UK Sports Staff
Jun 6 2016, 4:31pm

Brace yourself, France... // PA Images

The second of our Euro 2016 previews covers Group B, which will see neighbours England and Wales battle it out for British supremacy. Russia and dark horses Slovakia will be hoping to take advantage of this intra-island squabble and beat them to the knockout rounds. Honestly, that outcome is as inevitable as our British pessimism.

ENGLAND

How Did They Do It? As ever, England breezed through qualifying, whipping the nation into a veritable frenzy at the possibilities that lie ahead this summer. Except, that's not true in 2016 – the public have been burnt too many times by the white-hot hype machine, and seem comparatively realistic about this summer's tournament. The media are still absolutely on the bandwagon, though. THIS IS DEFINITELY ENGLAND'S TIME, LADS!

Household Names: This might be a little redundant here. In fact, it'd be easier to list those who aren't: Tom Heaton. The Burnley goalkeeper – who goes as third choice following Jack Butland's ankle injury – is less famous than his squad-mates by dint of playing in the Championship this term. That said, most football fans will know of him, and it's largely irrelevant as he's hugely unlikely to get any game time. Still, filled this section, didn't we?

Tom Heaton // PA Images

The Man in Charge: Roy Hodgson is a company man: reliable, stoic at times of crisis, humble when things are going well. Would you hire him to do your accounts? Yes. Would you charge out of a trench and into no-man's land for him? Probably not, sorry.

Still, he's not cursed by an out-of-control libido, unlike Sven Goran Eriksson; he is not wholly inept, unlike Steve McClaren; and he has shown admirable faith in youth, unlike Fabio Capello, who would blatantly have taken Jermain Defoe, Michael Carrick, and Geoff Hurst if he'd accepted the call. Nevertheless, Roy needs a good showing from the kids if he's to be entrusted with leading them to the next World Cup.

Prospects: England must be targeting the quarter-finals at the very least. Anything else would be a let-down. Reaching the last eight with a young and motivated group would bode well for the future. They have the players, but this is England, so no bugger knows quite what they'll do.

England's inspirational leader // Peter Powell/EPA

WALES

How Did They Do It? Wales qualified for their first major tournament in 58 years thanks to two key ingredients: a resolutely frugal defence, and a hugely driven Gareth Bale. 1-0 down to Andorra in the opening game, Bale rescued them with two vital goals. They then conceded only once in the next six games, including a 1-0 win over Belgium. Bale scored in that one, eventually netting seven of Wales' 11 qualifying goals. After all that, they actually clinched qualification with a 2-0 defeat to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Household Names: The joke goes that the Wales starting 11 is comprised of Gareth Bale and 10 lucky competition winners. While not entirely fair, you'd be hard pressed to call the likes of Hal Robson-Kanu and James Chester truly elite footballers. Nevertheless, Aaron Ramsey can be excellent on his day, skipper Ashley Williams is a born leader, and there's plenty of Premier League experience in Wayne Hennessey, Joe Allen, and Joe Ledley (if he's fit). But clearly Bale is the star man.

Gareth Bale and some unknown fellas in football jerseys // PA Images

The Man in Charge: Chris Coleman's career in club management was floundering when he took the Wales job. He did so in awful circumstances, following the death of his friend and former teammate Gary Speed. In this respect, you can only admire how the Swansea-born Coleman has handled the role and steered Wales to a major tournament. He's already extended his contract and will hope to take Wales to their first World Cup since 1958.

Prospects: Wales wanted to avoid England as the game's local rivalry might distract from the task at hand – qualifying from Group B. They can be hopeful given their other rivals, though neither Russia nor Slovakia are pushovers. Worryingly bad pre-tournament form will need to be banished in time for a crucial opening clash with the Slovaks.

Chris Coleman celebrates his side's 2-0 defeat to Bosnia-Herzegovina // Fehim Demir/EPA

RUSSIA

How Did They Do It? As runners-up in their qualifying group, a full eight points shy of winners Austria but two clear of Sweden. The competition didn't extend much further than this – the other three sides were Montenegro, Lichtenstein and Moldova. Still, the Russians didn't get going until Fabio Capello had been replaced with Leonid Slutsky, even drawing 1-1 at home with Moldova. Results picked up under the new boss, including a 7-0 away hammering of Liechtenstein.

Household Names: Russia the national team – like Russia the country – is a bit of a mystery. Only one of their players is based outside the domestic league (uncapped Roman Neustädter, who's switched allegiance from Germany), which means the average fan only really sees them at major tournaments. What Russia do have is a core of five CSKA Moscow players, including skipper Roman Shirokov, who have more than 400 caps between them. Still, no Arshavins or Pavlyuchenkos in this squad.

The lads // Hans Punz/EPA

The Man in Charge: Slutsky took over from the sacked Capello less than a year ago, in August 2015, then led the team to qualification. Like his squad, he's not widely known outside Russia. The internet tells us that he retired from the game after falling out of a tree while rescuing a neighbour's cat, sustaining a career-ending injury in the process. So there you go.

Prospects: It would be dangerous to ignore Russia – both the national team and the country. Their squad is undeniably less well known than some – even Iceland have more "names" – but the Russian Premier League is a strong competition. On the other hand, we were saying this about them at the 2014 World Cup, where they turned out to be crap. All things considered, England and Wales will both fancy their chances, while Slovakia won't approach the Russians with any fear. On the football pitch, anyway.

This all seems pretty legit // Ivan Sekretarev/EPA

SLOVAKIA

How Did They Do It? Slovakia finished as runners-up to Spain in their qualifying group. The Slovaks were bossing it early on, winning their opening six games without response – including a 2-1 win over Spain. But after the reigning European Champions beat them last September Slovakia's results slipped: they drew with Ukraine, lost at home to Belarus, and slipped to second. Nevertheless, automatic qualification was secured.

Household Names: Considerably more than Russia, maybe even more than Wales. Captain Martin Skrtel will be familiar to all Premier League fans for his long-running hardman act at Liverpool, while most will also have seen the awfully gifted Marek Hamsik of Napoli in action. There are a further three players from Serie A sides, Hertha Berlin's Peter Pekarik, and Miroslav Stoch was once considered a very average prospect at Chelsea.

Bad hair, rubbish tattoos, wonderful footballer // Julien Warnand/EPA

The Man in Charge: Jan Kozak, who played more than 50 games for Czechoslovakia and reached the semis of the Euros in 1980. He's got plenty of domestic management experience and has been national boss since 2013.

Prospects: This is Slovakia's second major tournament as an independent nation, and their first appearance at the Euros. Their squad is solid, with an attacking superstar and a reliable enough defence (sound like Wales, don't they?) Their prospects are similar to the Welsh forecast: Slovakia will look to get out of the group, with the quarters and beyond counting as a major success. England and Wales fans tend to consider them the group's weakest team, but Roy Hodgson and Chris Coleman would be foolish to do the same.