The biggest headline when the draw was made for Euro 2016 in December was that England had been drawn in the same group as Wales in the latter’s first appearance at a major tournament since all the way back in 1958. There is pressure on both sides as they take to the field for their opening matches on Saturday, with England especially under the spotlight in their bid to make a long-awaited impression on the big stage.
As soon as they qualified amid joyous scenes by beating Andorra eight months ago, the whole of Wales has been full of anticipation, not deterred by an unconvincing sequence of results in recent friendlies. They face a Slovakia side that is also making their first European Championship appearance, but like Chris Coleman’s men they qualified strongly thanks to a resilient team effort.
Although Marek Hamsik is a key player and integral to their chances, Slovakia do not have a truly outstanding player who can win a game single-handedly. That is what Wales are fortunate enough to possess in the shape of Gareth Bale, who will receive no shortage of attention during this competition, and whose pace strikes fear into opposition sides.
That is not to say that the Welsh are a one-man team, as many a resolute defensive performance helped them secure their place in France, led by captain Ashley Williams. He in particular will have to be on his game here as defeat would mean that Wales will face a potentially uphill struggle to reach the knockout stages, while the same applies to Slovakia. For that reason, this encounter carries plenty of intrigue.
No team qualified for Euro 2016 as convincingly as England, who won all 10 of their matches and amassed a hefty goals tally. All the same, there is not a tangible sense of optimism among the country’s footballing public that something sensational might be on the cards, but opinions might change depending on how they fare against the great enigma that is Russia.
There is no doubting that England have one of the most exciting squads at Euro 2016, with many fine youngsters and an incredibly strong pool of strikers. The major concerns lie in defence, where few are totally convinced of centre-back partnership of Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling and their ability to cut it at the highest level.
The game takes place in sunny Marseille and supporters will be expecting an attack-minded and positive display from England, accompanied by a high tempo and players being given roles that they are accustomed to. Some of the criticism levelled at manager Roy Hodgson prior to the tournament centred on his tendency to deploy players outside of their natural positions.
There will be an inner determination to banish the disappointment of a terrible 2014 World Cup, but Russia have plenty of sins to redeem themselves for, having shown great promise in previous tournaments only for a lack of urgency to prove their downfall.
The man in charge is Leonid Slutsky, who helped the team qualify automatically after taking over from Fabio Capello. As opening opponents Russia make for an interesting proposition for England, but they know anything other than three points to begin with would lead to widespread critique.