Monday, 6 June 2016

Euro 2016 Group B preview



Michael: So, Group B then...



Wales









Michael: Oh, go on then...



Jon: Clear tournament favourites. Ronaldo’s declining and Barca’s three amigos aren’t European so the best player at the tournament is obviously the godlike Gareth Bale, who’s poised to take this tournament by storm with seven straight hat-tricks and fire Wales to an effortless inaugural national tournament win.  Knighthoods all round, none of the players ever need to buy a drink again. Hurrah!


Michael: They’ll be out before the postcards. If the Welsh can get anything from Russia or England and qualify from this group, it’ll be the greatest Welsh achievement since Rorke’s Drift.


Jon: Ah, the green eyes of someone whose team got lost on their way to Paris!


Michael: It was a tough group. It had Thomas Muller, Robert Lewandowski...


Jon:  And Qazaishvili too.


Michael:  *Paddington Bear stare*


Joao: Wales finished second in its group with 21 points, two points behind group winner Belgium, and four points above third placed team Bosnia. It’s interesting that they actually won their head-to-head against Belgium (0-0 away and 1-0 win at home), while they lost their head-to-head against third placed Bosnia (0-0 at home and 0-2 defeat away). Fortunately for them, if they happen to meet them again and history repeats itself, Belgium will be playing Euro 2016 while Bosnia won’t.


Michael: Wales have a reputation for being a one man team, but so what? That’s a charge which has been labelled at everyone from lower league sides to the World cup winning team of 1986. And in Gareth Bale, they certainly have a man. But beyond him, there is a defensive coherence and nous about the team that few thought Chris Coleman had in him.


Jon: More seriously no-one was really expecting great things of Coleman but he’s been perfect. Coleman’s expertise is defence and he’s organised the team to get maximum results from limited resources. Ashley Williams is the key player as leader and organiser here; his time in the Premier League since Swansea’s promotion has been invaluable.  


Coleman’s played three at the back to neutralise Belgium and a more conventional four where he’s deemed it necessary so there’s a degree of flexibility to the team too. To say Wales are a one-man team has a limited degree of truth but equally it’s unfair on the likes of Joe Ledley, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen who’ve all made important contributions in midfield. Bale’s form conceals the one great weakness of the side; the lack of a great striker to lead the line. Robson-Kanu, Vokes and Church are all willing but hardly likely to scare defenders.



Michael: Wales might be one of the weaker sides in the tournament – though I’d suggest there’s two other neighbouring sides in that argument – but they’ll certain enjoy their tournament experience after so long away. And they are one of the few sides to have a player with 2 Champions Leagues in 3 years, so they can be slightly optimistic.


Well, maybe until Slovakia slam ten past them in the opening game...


Jon: Nah, we’ll be ok. Bale vs Skrtel? He’ll have eleven before they’re out of the blocks.



Joao: The Wales from the 2014 World Cup qualifiers that only got one point in six matches against Belgium, Croatia and Serbia will probably lose every game. However, the Wales that got four points in two matches against Belgium in Euro 2016 qualifiers has a good chance to get some points against Slovakia, England and Russia. Wales usually finishes behind its group opponents in the qualifying cycles. They finished behind their first opponent, Slovakia, in Euro 2008 qualifiers. In Euro 2012 qualifiers they were defeated twice by England, their second opponent. And in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers they were defeated twice by Russia, their third opponent.



Michael: Mind you, another day, another person – Andy King this time – says Wales can win the Euros. The more people say that, they more likely I think it’s going to crash and burn. Sorry!


Jon: It’s just enthusiasm. We depend on Bale, who’s arguably the best player at the tournament. Did I mention him yet?


Michael: Aye, but I’m of the Jimmy Hill persuasion. Home nations do best when they’re under the radar, so to speak. Bit hard to be under the radar when you’ve got people predicting huge things everywhere!


Jon: Facts don’t bear that one out though. England’s best performances were at home with huge expectations, Scotland’s performances at tournaments are, shall we say, very consistent, and the other two have very limited sample size.


Michael: Scotland are a case in point. In the underdog role, brilliant. Expected to a win a game, can’t pass for toffee and afraid of their own shadows.

Anyhow, you know I strongly believe in football hubris, hence why I remain steadfast in predicting Wales finishing bottom of their group for safety.


Jon: I don’t think that’s unreasonable as a prediction.


Michael: Jon said that with all the friendly demeanour of someone saying “nice shop you’ve got here” as the first line in a protectionist scheme.  Mind you, Scottish football hasn’t recovered from the ghost of Ally McLeod. Poor chap.


Jon: “Don’t Come Home Too Soon” is the logical response to Ally’s Army triumphalism being consistently disappointing.


Michael: Pop culture remembers Scotland being awful, forgets the circumstances of top players all carrying injuries and the first XI being unable to play together until the Holland game. It became the wrong lesson in a way.  And Don’t Come Home Too Soon isn’t very popular here. We Have A Dream is more sort of the middle ground, dreams of genius linked to the mendacity of reality with a knowing wink.


“Now the next thing I know, someones gaun and tripped me and i've fallen just inside the box (thats a penalty)
Now ref he loks to his linesman and he's pointing right at the spot! (thats brilliant)
Now John Robertson, who normally takes them, is handing the ball to me (you dont say)
and then i hear ma old lady screamin' blue murder, shes saying, "thats no the ball yer kickin' ya eejit, its me!"”

Lyrics copyright – BA Robertson



Jon: I can imagine, people want to dream around tournaments, not be faced with reality.




Michael: Which brings us back to Wales.


Jon: Exactly!


Gav: So, Wales is on top of England on the map?


Michael: No, that’s Scotland.


Gav: Never heard of it. I should look at maps more often.


Michael: He’s a cruel chap.


I should point out that Joe Ledley broke his leg in April, and looks like he might have recovered to start against Slovakia. That’s incredible by any means. His recovery means Emrys Huws misses out, a victim of the surfeit of talent in the midfield. Also missing is Paul Dummett, who suffers from the deficit of success at relegated Newcastle.


Jon: Should’ve got Rafa in sooner.



What the Experts Say



“The last time Wales made it to a summers final – a team of similar talent and togetherness, led by a genuinely world-class player in John Charles – they reached the last-eight. If they can carry the belief and momentum of their impressive qualifying campaign to France, there is no reason why they cannot expect to do the same again.” Chris Wathan, Together Through Tragedy, World Soccer May 2016




“Getting Wales to a tournament for the first time in over half a century was a fantastic achievement. The hard thing was getting there, now we’re looking to surprise a few people. We’ve got a nucleus who have been together for six or seven years  so when you meet up you don’t feel uneasy or uncomfortable – everyone feels like they’re at home. So when you feel like that, you are able to express yourselves fully.” Hal Robson-Kanu, FourFourTwo.



Previous – Quarterfinals, 1976
Recent – Playoffs in 2004, but we don’t bring those up with Jon.
Don’t mention – Joe Jordan.
Do mention – A strong 1-0 win over Belgium in the qualifiers
Self-Destruction Potentiality Rating – 1. (There seems little to no egos in the side, just honest, if a little mediocre, graft...There’s a togetherness in the side that Gary Speed put together, and a seemingly increased determination since he died, to achieve for their late coach.)



Michael: Wales will be the second team for many people in the UK – will they “do a Scotland” or “do a Republic of Ireland” (1990-4, not 2012 version): time will tell. I rate Allen more than a few Liverpool fans I know, and Ledley (though half fit) and Ramsey (the grim reaper) will provide chances. But there is the niggling post-qualifying view that if you nullify Bale, you’ll nullify Wales.



England







Joao: England was the best team in Euro 2016 qualifiers, the only one with a 100% record: 10 wins in 10 matches. They were also the second best attack, with 31 goals scored. This was the third consecutive qualifying cycle where England managed to stay undefeated. The last time they were defeated in a qualifier was in 2009, when they lost away in Ukraine but still won the other 9 group matches. Usually qualifying isn’t the problem (although England missed Euro 2008), the problem is the final stages when the opponents are stronger.



Michael: Whisper it, but England are actually mostly inoffensive these days. If Wayne Rooney managed to miss the tournament they’d be even more so. He didn’t, but they have brought the young and exciting Marcus Rashford. He’s eighteen and with a dozen top flight appearances to his name, but he scored on his debut for England and has a positional sense which is years ahead of his age.


Jon: We’re past the interminable golden generation hype at last, which is quite refreshing.


Michael: Ever notice the Golden Generation actually did worse at major tournaments than Des Walker?


Jon: Often.


Michael: The nucleus of the modern England side is built on the young sides of Tottenham and Liverpool, and feels like it has vibrancy hidden away, just ready to be unleashed on the world. Perhaps it will be this tournament.


Jon: Well, though it always looked a relatively straightforward group you can’t fault a record of ten wins out of ten. It’s always mildly surprising when England fail to trip over their own feet at some point but really qualification was an untroubled canter this time. It’s been quite a pleasant couple of years for England fans since the reality check of Brazil ’14.


Michael: I know Jon isn’t very fond of Mr Hodgson. He must have managed Newport County at some point?


Jon: *sassafrassinwhyIoughtta…*


I’d like to be sanguine about Mr Hodgson but my Liverpool fan gene won’t quite allow me to be. I entirely admire his achievements in Nordic leagues (albeit they’re by exporting English ideas rather than absorbing ideas from other cultures) and you can’t fault his pan-European ramble over his career (unless you’re Boris Johnson or Michael Gove), nor his taking Fulham to a European final.  This is all fine and admirable stuff and, as I’m in a good mood, I shall not spoil it with a 14 page rant about his horrendous failings in an admittedly impossible situation at Anfield.


Let us remember though that Roy Hodgson is the highest paid international manager in the world. The performance at the 2012 Euros was excusable following the post-Capello chaos, even if the penalty shootout defeat to Italy was an exercise in playing for a 0-0 from the first whistle and hoping against hope that Italy choked worse than England in a shootout.  Much worse was the abject World Cup in which they only avoided the humiliation of zero points by drawing with a Costa Rican side already qualified for the next round. How bad was it? Oscar Tabarez openly pointed out that they’d sussed England’s tactical flaw (that the ageing Gerard at defensive midfielder could be got at very easily) and was entirely vindicated. England’s worst tournament since the 1988 Euros, where they had the misfortune to be drawn in a group with the two finalists and an Ireland team with a point to prove. And that 2014 group wasn’t as difficult as that 1988 one.  England managers have been told to go or turned into root vegetables by national newspapers for less, let alone a manager paid as a member of the game’s elite.  On the plus side, credit to the FA for sticking by their man in difficult circumstances rather than cravenly scapegoating him. But… I think Hodgson’s generally old-fashioned strengths turn to limitations in tournament play and cost them against sides they’re evenly matched with.



Michael: I’d like to point out that, if we consider that the conditions in Manaus murdered the chances of the Italians (a far superior team) and everyone else who played there, then we have to give Hodgson’s team that benefit of the doubt too. Even if we both assume that even a full strength England would have lost to Italy and Uruguay in South America. In fact, you could claim that setting up Manaus as a place which would be deadly for England to play...before the draw was even made, was a master-stroke by Roy in job security.


And, having foreseen that Jon might be slightly anti-Hodgson, I went for balance by approaching Fulham fan Steve Atkins for thoughts on the man...



Steve: Roy Hodgson is a rare breed amongst English managers. He has managed club sides in six different countries, and is currently on his fourth international side. He has spent most of his career respected in mainland Europe and derided in England, the exact reverse of the usual format. Indeed, it wasn't until he saved Fulham from almost certain relegation in 2008 and led them to a European final just two years later that his reputation in his native land reached anything like current levels, and that twinned with the achievement of guiding West Brom to a top-half finish in the Premier League in 2012 led to him being awarded the national job just prior to Euro 2012, a successful tournament for the national team.


Hodgson has since guided England through two unbeaten qualifying campaigns, although was a little unfortunate in the 2014 World Cup. He is a manager who has shown more flexibility than he is often given credit for, has a good record of helping players under his guidance improve and learn how to play as a team, and gives younger players a fair chance, as he has shown in recent months with his relatively young England side including the one that beat Germany. He is, at present, the best English coach, and the one best suited to giving England a chance of a good Euro 2016.



Michael: And there we have the yin and yang of Roy Hodgson. (And we have the polite, sanitised version here – who knew such a mild mannered guy could bring opposite and occasionally vitriolic response?)


Joao: There are twelve players left from their 2014 World Cup squad: goalkeepers Hart and Forster, defenders Smalling and Cahill, midfielders Lallana, Henderson, Wilshere, Sterling, Milner and Barkley, and forwards Rooney and Sturridge. The remaining eleven players will have their debuts in a major tournament.


Michael: Poor Danny Drinkwater though. Stand out season in a role with too much talent in it. It’s a bit like Peter O’Toole at the Oscars.

I know, Michael, I'm bloody dead and this snub annoys me, whoever Drinkwater is.
(By ABC TV - ebay, Public Domain, )



Jon: Taking Drinkwater could’ve been a fairly subtle tactical masterstroke, if only because he knows Vardy’s game so well that it might’ve been a useful weapon to break down obdurate defences (as it has been in the second half of the season). Still, there are reasons to be optimistic; particularly with the emerging Liverpool/Spurs nucleus that Michael mentions. Dele Alli’s emergence has been one of the most enjoyable things about this season, Adam Lallana’s benefiting from the tuition of Jurgen Klopp and on top of Daniel Sturridge’s finishing ability Harry Kane looks the real deal; the brain of Teddy Sheringham allied to pace and power. And there’s depth too; Jamie Vardy’s pace and work ethic will pose problems for tiring defences.

Vardy was definitely going to the Euros. Hodgson wrote a piece in the programme for Footballer of the Year dinner based on that he was going to announce the squad that day.


Michael: Given he’s the FA Footballer of the Year, never in doubt.  Apparently the last one of those to miss out on a major tournament was Ginola.


Jon: That Ginola award was an appalling decision anyway.


Michael: Came from four years of being held solely responsible for France not making USA 94?


Jon: Houllier held a grudge for that last minute cock up and made sure that got passed down. 


Michael:  What I like about Kane is that he wasn’t just chucked out there in the limelight aged 18 because he was a promising teenager. He was allowed to develop his game quietly on the side, with little fanfare, for years, and then appeared as a first team Spurs regular when ready. It’s a positively Spanish approach to youth development, and bodes well for him.


Jon: With all that where are you going to plug the aging Rooney in? Indeed, would you want to?
Michael: When the Rooney question came up in 2012, it was alongside the Balotelli question, and I said take both. Four years on, I’d have strongly advised leaving both to watch the Euros from a local pub. Wayne Rooney has notably declined in recent years, and though he still gets goals (though not as many as he should with the hype surrounding them), they come at the cost of the team, who are spending too much time trying to get the ball to Rooney. England played better in the double header of friendlies without Rooney in March than they have in some time. They played better at Euro 2012 without him than with him. His record in his prime is 1 World Cup goal in 3 tournaments. It’s like the Germans in 2010: all the talk here pre-tournament was of the Ballack injury, yet the German side looked superior without Ballack and he never got a look in again. The time has come for the FA to have the similar Rooney conversation.


Jon: Sadly we know it’ll be England looking for a way to plug him in despite his slide in form. He’s worth having round the squad as an older head who well knows the tricks of others (a lesson learned hard in 2006) but he’s appeared out of sorts all season; little incidents such as the opening day against Spurs when he wanted two touches with a clear chance (and got lucky when  Kyle Walker tackled the ball into his own net). I suspect the relative success of England’s tournament depends on how they resolve the Rooney problem. Personally I’d be looking for a younger, more dynamic attack but I accept the political difficulties of dropping Rooney makes the choice harder Roy than it does for me sitting here. Still, that’s why he’s paid the big money!


Michael: As seen in their friendly against Portugal, Rooney goes back into the team and suddenly the vibrancy of recent months has been killed off. It seems that if England want to do well, they have to bench Rooney, otherwise all the young talents in the team are nullified.


Jon: Yep. As a Welshman I hope that Roy doesn’t realise that playing the ponderous Rooney just behind the strikers ahead of the drive and pace of Alli is a really bad idea. That’s the only thing that scares me before the UK derby.


Joao: England’s first opponent will be Russia. The match would be more interesting if Russia’s coach was still Fabio Capello, it would be England’s current coach against his predecessor. However, Capello already left Russia, so it will just be a match between two teams that both had him in charge before having their current coaches. The next opponent, Wales, is a team that England defeated twice in Euro 2012 qualifiers. Maybe now it won’t be as easy as it was then, but England should still be stronger. Finally, Slovakia will be the last group stage opponent. England should be stronger, but they should remember that in the 2010 World Cup Slovakia managed to do what England couldn’t do both in 2012 and 2014 – defeat and eliminate Italy.


Michael: There’s also the news that Oxlade-Chamberlain will miss the Euros, having come down with a nasty case of “treated by the Arsenal physios”.


Gav: That is a huge loss.


Michael: For England?


Gav: No, for viewers who mostly watch tournaments to see ex-Southampton players!


Michael:  Welbeck will miss out, because he’s out for nine months with a knee injury. I really think the English could do well this tournament. And if a Scot is saying that...


Gav: ...it’s a sign of the end of days?


Michael: Very droll. I think their fans will finally have a tournament to remember to cheer. In fact, I think we can say...


Jon: Don’t.


Michael:.. that there is very little chance of an early Brexit this summer!





Jon: That was terrible.


Michael: I’m just keeping you ready for the moment England go out in the groups, and the Mail run with Brexit (the vote is the next day, so they’ll pretend they’re clever) and you can get all irate as Wales are still in the tournament!


Blimey, Jon gives off so many Paddington Bear stares lately, he’ll be paying royalties to Michael Bond next...


Gav: Chaps? I’ve just heard that Luke Shaw is still injured, and didn’t make the Euros. This decreases the number of former Southampton players. However, it does open a spot in the squad for Wayne Rooney as the third goalkeeper.


Jon: You have to laugh at Walcott “not going as he hasn’t played enough”, and Wilshere being picked!


Michael: I thought that was diplomatic for “Walcott’s not going because he’s shit!”


Jon: You and I might well think that, we couldn’t possibly comment.


Michael: There is a dreaded secret weapon waiting out there to KO the English though. It’s called a penalty shootout. With the Italians discover the joy of the penalty, and even the Dutch having won the odd shootout here and there, the English remain the worst nation in the world at the penalty shootout. You can’t practice them, they claim, ignoring the fact that the countries which practice penalties tend to be the most successful at them. Or maybe they think Germany have just been really lucky for the last 40 years? Speaking of Germany v England, which might happen at the Euros, but who plays who is reliant on so many variables just now as to be unpredictable: I’m reminded of half time during the World Cup semifinal of 1990, when Des Lynam mentioned the Italians exit the day before and said “Well, let’s hope that’s not us later!” In one sentence, he doomed a nation. Thanks, Des! It’s funny really, it’s like Bela’s Curse, there’s no reason England shouldn’t score penalties or Benfica shouldn’t win a European cup, but once it’s in the head, it’s difficult to dispossess it.


Jon: I certainly wouldn’t say penalties themselves are unlucky – they’re a psychological flaw now – but essentially they’re a result of draws and in a football match the difference between draw and win or defeat are moments of fortune. Gascoigne just missing a toe poke into an empty net in 1996, Beckham’s injury meaning he pulled out of the challenge before Brazil’s equaliser in 2002, Beckham being conned by Simeone in 98 when Owen was marmalizing the Argentinean defence.



What the Experts Say




“If Roy Hodgson is adventurous, unleashing the Tottenham pair Dele Alli and Harry Kane, and the defence learn how to concentrate for 90 minutes, England should reach at least the quarterfinals.”
Henry Winter, World Soccer April 2016



“But fashions would of course change again, with both central defenders being essentially stoppers. Quite why there are so few of them available to Roy Hodgson today is a mystery. John Stones should have been the answer. He wanted to leave Everton last summer, and Chelsea in their turn wanted him badly. They must now, after his erratic form this season, be relieved that they did not succeed in buying him. For Stones, alas, for all his natural gifts, has this season been grievously prone to error; for England at Wembley as well as with his club.” Brian Glanville, Lack of Defensive Options will Cost England, World Soccer 17 May 2016



Previous – Semifinals, 1968, 1996
Recent – Quarterfinals 2004, 2012
Don’t mention – Not qualifying in 2008, Rooney, Hodgson’s Liverpool reign, certain votes which might happen around June 23rd.
Do mention – Their exciting U21 team graduates.
Self-Destruction Potentiality Rating – 9. (On previous form, on picking Rooney despite it killing the team’s energy and creativity, and the fallout if Roy actually doesn’t pick Rooney, England have all the ingredients for major fallout, and tend to have stories to tell the press anyhow...)



Michael: For want of a Wayne.



                                                                                     
Russia






Michael: On paper, they look like darkhorses.


Jon:  Dark horses? Haven’t they been supposed dark horses in every tournament for the last decade or so?


Michael: In practice, ever since Slutsky (Mandy’s favourite manager name, incidentally, there she is, giggling again) took over, they look like darkhorses.


And yet, every single tournament, in my lifetime, that the Russians qualify for, with the notable exception of Euro 2008, they bloody suck. Last time I said they could get to the Semis without breaking a sweat, and they got a combined single point from Poland and the Greeks. In 2014, they were widely tipped to go far, and crashed out in a fairly simple group. In 2002, likewise, and out to Japan.


If life has taught me anything, it’s that Russia at major tournaments always let you down.


And yet...


They do have a very exciting team on paper.


Joao: Russia finished second in its group, eight points behind group winner Austria, and two points above third placed Sweden. After six matches they had two defeats against Austria, two draws against Sweden and Moldova, and their only wins were against Liechtenstein and Montenegro, the last one on court because of crowd trouble. Fabio Capello was fired and things got back on track.


Jon: Much as Fabio Capello was a great manager it’s perhaps time we suggested that either he’s not suited for international management or he’s not adjusted to developments in the game since his 90s heyday; he had cultural problems in managing English players and turned out what was, at best, a deeply functional but unexciting side. And with Russia… well, there’s a reason Slutsky’s the manager now.


Perish the thought that I’m grumpy about his treatment of Dzagoev.



Michael: Is Dzagoev still your man to watch?


Jon: Let’s just say the rest of Europe will come round to my way of thinking by the end of the tournament. *manic Putinesque cackle*


Michael: A word to the readers, Jon spent most of the 2014 World Cup when Russia played going “Where’s Dzagoev, you sod?” anytime the camera showed Fabio Capello on the screen. That the CSKA man was often brought on too late to do much about the game, or stifled by the Italians tactics, did little to appease him.


And, given Dzagoev will now miss the tournament due to injury, Jon has never been the same. I think we’ll find the CSKA man has dual Welsh nationality hidden in a folder somewhere!


Jon: *sulks*



Michael: The last Capello Russian game in June 2015 (a home loss to Austria) had 4-5-1, and Kokorin as a the sole one up front. At that point, Russia had eight points from six games, were level on points with Montenegro, and the question being asked was if they even qualify.  Leonid Slutsky, the CSKA Moscow manager, came in with a tricky set of fixtures left (Sweden and Montenegro) and won all four of them.  I especially liked his solution to the Kokorin/Dzagoev/Dzyuba conundrum – how do you get the best from the Russian team with three stars in similar roles – by just playing all three of them and going for broke! Artem Dzyuba looked on fire for Zenit in the Champions League last winter, and brought his form to the national team, firing in goal after goal.


Jon: It’s a cliché to say that Italian managers first thought is how to stop their opponent scoring and their last thought is how to keep a clean sheet but Capello’s time in England and with Russia bears that out; all the stability came at the expense of coherent attacking play. Kokkorin, Dzagoev and Dzyuba as a front three promise chances and goals.


Joao: The current squad has 11 players left from the 2014 World Cup squad: Akinfeev, Lodygin, Ignashevich, Vassili Berezoutski, Dmitri Kombarov, Schennikov, Denisov, Glushakov, Samedov, Shatov and Kokorin. Others like Aleksei Berezoutski and Shirokov were part of the Euro 2012 squad, and others like Ivanov and Torbinski were in the Euro 2008 squad. Only eight players will be having their debut in a major tournament: goalkeeper Guilherme, defenders Smolnikov, Shishkin and Neustadter, midfielder Mamaev, and forwards Dzyuba and Smolov.



Michael: Aleksei Miranchuk, my one time pick for surprise at the tournament, hasn’t come into consideration under Slutsky. One for the future.  

Cheryshev could have made the team as another option however, but then got injured. Are injuries killing this early Russian promise?


Jon: Aleksandr Golovin looks to be someone who might make a splash too if he makes it into the team; he made quite an impression at the Euros at youth level.  A playmaker who’s keeping Russia’s captain Shirokov out of the CSKA team right now and who’s scored two in his three senior international appearances.  Also, he’s clearly wise as he’s often spoken of looking up to Dzagoev.  It may be a tournament too early for him but he could well be the dark horse for the dark horses.


Joao: Russia eliminated its three group opponents in qualifiers over the last five qualifying cycles. Firstly they eliminated England in Euro 2008 qualifiers. That was England’s lowest moment and Russia’s highest in a long time. They couldn’t actually defeat England head-to-head, they only collected more points than England. And now, will they defeat them? And if not, will they at least collect more points? Then they eliminated Wales in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers. This time they actually defeated Wales and they did it twice, but in the end they still couldn’t reach the World Cup, losing the playoff against Slovenia. Finally, in Euro 2012 qualifiers they eliminated Slovakia.



What the Experts Say



“It will surely be a success if Russia reaches the second stage. There is no talented football generation in Russia now, however Slutsky himself is a very talented coach.”
Igor Rabiner, World Soccer April 2016 


Previous – Winners, 1960 (as the USSR)
Recent – Semifinalists, 2008.
Don’t mention – the 2002 World Cup, the 2014 World Cup, Euro 2004, Euro 2008, not qualifying for tournaments in 2006 or 2010...
Do mention – Their extra time KO of the Dutch in 2008.
Self-destruction Potentiality Rating – 7 (in terms of going out quickly)


Michael: Russia will be out in the group stage. Hey, every single time they've qualified previously, I've said Semis. And look where it got us. So this time, I'm going to assume the worst...



Slovakia





Joao: Slovakia finished second in its group, five points behind group winner Spain and three points above third placed Ukraine. They had a spectacular start, winning their first six matches – the first one was away in Ukraine and the second at home against Spain. However, they could only win one of their last four matches.


Slovakia qualified to the 2010 World Cup, then missed Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup. They still have a few players left from the 2010 World Cup squad: Pekarík, Skrtel, Sálata, Durica, Kucka, Hamsik, Weiss, Sesták and Stoch. The rest of the squad will be having their debut in a major tournament.


Michael: I feel in UK-land, Slovakia have been much ignored. Which feels wrong, as any side who can beat Spain and then Germany (albeit the latter was a friendly) have to have something about them.


Last time I said don’t ignore a side, it was Sweden in Euro 2012. I'm so sorry, Slovak fans.


Jon: Hey, any side with Martin Skrtel in… is liable to give the opposition a chance.


As with Wales it’s Slovakia’s first appearance at the Euros; as with Wales they’re defending a 100% qualification record from their group. Michael no doubt remembers their 3-2 victory over Italy in 2010 which saw them sneak through before losing to Bert’s Dutch brawlers.


Michael: That’s Van Marwijk and not Bert Kassies, in case anyone was wondering. They really ought to have qualified for Euro 2012. Started qualifying with a bang, won in Russia, then slowly ground to a halt. Overtaken by the Irish, who such a meaningful and lasting tournament.


Jon:  There remains a lot of familiar faces from that tournament; as well as Skrtel the likes of Hamsik are still around. Still, the doubts are there due to recent form; after an impressive start they rather crawled across the qualifying line in only winning one of their last four games (and even then they conceded two goals to the less-than-mighty Luxembourg). So which side do we get? The team that flew out of the traps with seven straight wins and defeated Spain or the stumbling, spluttering side of the last year or so?


Michael: Slovakia do have good players though. Their majestic win over Spain in the qualifiers saw the match winner scored by Miroslav Stoch, a fine player currently turning out for Bursaspor, but as they are not going to qualify for Europe (languishing in 11th place in the Turkish top flight) he will surely move elsewhere in the summer. Another of those players, incidentally, that Chelsea snapped up young and then never used properly.  A friend once called Vladimir Weiss the “future greatest player in Europe”, and while he’s never lived up to that or early Football Manager claims, there is talented there, and Hamsik of Napoli is one who needs little introduction.  Alan Kalter notes that Slovakia were good at “hanging in there” against the Spanish, and their keeper was of note, but that they wasted chances.  They also had the benefit of a simpler group – for all the talk of Spain and Ukraine, the combined woeful efforts of Luxembourg, Belarus and Macedonia gave the Slovakians the comfort early on of knowing they’d be in the playoffs at absolute worst.


What I’m trying to say is, we don’t know how they’ll respond to a tougher competitive atmosphere.



Jon: In fairness, if they’re creating chances against Spain that bodes well for them – that responsibility’s likely to fall on the shoulders of the aging Vittek. Recent friendlies suggest a team low on steam though; 0-0 at home to Latvia isn’t particularly encouraging but a near reserve side getting a 2-2 draw away to Ireland suggests that, barring an injury or two, there’s a good level of talent in the squad. Ultimately I think their tournament’s going to be decided by their first game; beat Wales and they’ll probably sneak through but a loss there probably sees them going home early.


Michael:  You know how VIttek is one of the handful of players we can name?


Jon: Yes?


Michael: He’s been dropped due to injury.


Jon: Damn it!


Joao: In 2010 they had a slow start, with a 1-1 draw against New Zealand, and the second result was even worse, a 0-2 defeat against Paraguay. However, in the last match they managed to defeat title holders Italy 3-2 and advance to the last 16, where Holland eliminated them.


Now their first opponent will be Wales. In Euro 2008 qualifiers they faced each other with interesting results and a sad ending for both. First Slovakia won away 5-1, then they lost at home 2-5, and in the end none of them advanced, Slovakia was fourth with 16 points and Wales fifth with fifteen. These two teams should be weaker than Russia and England, so this first match will be crucial for both.
Then they’ll face Russia. Slovakia faced Russia in Euro 2012 qualifiers, again with strange results, they won 1-0 away and then lost 0-1 at home. Russia won the group with 23 points, while Slovakia was only fourth with fifteen.


Clearly Slovakia’s problem isn’t being unable to get isolated results in short periods of time; their problem is consistency in longer periods. Slovakia also faced England, their last group opponent, in Euro 2004 qualifiers. They were defeated twice.



What the Experts Say


“Our big advantage is we have nothing to lose.”
Majimir Stasko, World Soccer 2016 


Previous  - N/A
Recent – N/A
Don’t mention – Managing to not qualify for 2012, somehow.
Do mention – Beating Spain.
Self-Destruction Potentiality Rating – Haven’t a clue.


Michael: The meagre contributions towards Slovakia suggest we underestimate them. Not at all. In fact, quite the opposite. However, there's not really much to say about them. Their top players are all known for their Serie A or former Premier League exploits, and while not much is known here about the other names, it would be a mug who overlooked them. 


The Roy Debate Continues..


Jon: Hodgson’s described Denmark 92 and Leicester as inspirations for England. Does he really see a consistently top 10 ranked nation as an underdog like that?


Michael: Well, Denmark are a fairly highly ranked nation too, since the 1980s. Though they’ve sadly fallen away in recent years.


Jon: No, context here is clearly Denmark being called up to the tournament at the last second having failed to qualify.


Michael: Yes, but context is also that England haven’t  reached more than two Semifinals in 49 years! Considerably below the Germans, Italians, Spanish, French, Dutch, even the Portuguese. You can see why contextually they’d be underdogs. They might be in the top ten, but there’s much better sides in that top ten.


Jon: I say this as someone who thinks Quarterfinals are their natural level, but considerably below the Portuguese? I’d argue not. I’d say its revealing of English mentality (or Hodgson’s anyway) – natural inferiority complex.


Michael: Portugal have reached six semifinals in 50 years to England’s three!


Jon: And England have won one trophy to Portugal’s none in that time.


Michael: I do like the approach. I agree with Jimmy Hill. When the home nations go in guns ablaze thinking they’re good, they get crushed by expectation. They tend to do better when theres no expectations and there’s the perceptions they’re up against it.


Jon: It can also be that talking players down knocks their confidence.


Michael: And talking them up leads to Euro 92!


Jon: Or Euro 96!


Michael: You know who was an expert in this method? Guus Hiddink in 2002. So many players have had good seasons and are yet to be hit by the English big tournament curse, so no expectations could be a good thing.


Jon: Or alternatively, it leads to England’s worst ever World Cup performance, and a struggle to get out of a group followed by an abject playing for penalties against Italy.


Michael: Manaus, dear chap.


Jon: You say that, one point from three games is abject for a major nation.


Michael: Far better sides like Italy were killed by the Manaus conditions, so even if we all know England would have gone out of that group in far friendlier conditions, that’s besides the point. I still think mentioning the conditions of Manaus as a killer before the draw was a masterstroke in keeping your job though.


Jon: On that one, we can definitely agree!




Managers


Michael: We've covered them elsewhere, but Slovakia’s Jan Kozak has done well to get his side to only their second international tournament.


Joao: Roy Hodgson will lead England in a Euro for the second time, after taking them to the quarter finals in 2012, where they lost in a penalty shootout against Italy. Two years later Italy defeated them once again, this time at the World Cup. A subsequent defeat against Uruguay and a draw against Costa Rica made it England’s worst ever World Cup participation, but they still trusted him to stay in charge.Will it payoff and maybe only two years later England will have its best Euro ever?


Leonid Slutsky was selected to fix this problem that Fabio Capello created, and he did it competently with 4 wins in the remaining 4 matches. His initial results with CSKA Moscow, where he also replaced a famous foreign coach, Juande Ramos, were impressive, taking them to the Champions League quarter finals in 2010. However, his last results aren’t so good anymore – over the last three seasons he has always finished bottom of his Champions’ League group, despite never being the lowest ranked team.


When Ján Kozák joined Slovakia, in July 2013, they were almost out of the 2014 World Cup, with only 9 points in 6 matches. He couldn’t rescue that qualifying campaign, but in the following he doubled Slovakia’s points in the first six matches, to a perfect 18. His career before Slovakia was modest; his biggest achievement was taking Kosice to the Champions’ League group stages in 1997, eliminating Spartak Moscow. Now he’ll face Russian opponents again, and a good result will overshadow his Kosice feat almost 20 years ago.


Chris Coleman became Wales’ coach in 2012, and success arrived slowly. In the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, in a six teams group also won by Belgium, Wales was only fifth placed with ten points. They only managed to get one point in six matches against the top three teams from their group (Belgium, Croatia and Serbia). However, two years later, in an easier group, he more than doubled Wales’ score to 21 points, and instead of being fifth placed he got the second spot and qualified Wales for an Euro for the first time. 58 years later, after playing the 1958 World Cup, Wales is back to a major tournament!


Players to Watch



Michael: Alli, Hamsik, Dzyuba, Robson-Kanu



Jon


A dark night, the sound of heavy rain outside. A flash of lightning. A photo frame shaped like two hearts of JON and DZAGOEV tumbles falls to the floor in slow motion, DZAGOEV’s frame instantly cracking. A hand reaches down.


JON (clutching frame to chest): Why God, why? Why must you break my heart so?


Anyway… Bale will be the player everyone will be watching for Wales, particularly opposition defences so cult hero Joe Ledley it is, who vowed not to shave until Wales qualified for the Euros and, broken leg allowing, will be looking to throw some more of his famously funky shapes with any good results. Golovin has almost as much of a man-crush on Dzagoev as me and might be even better than his hero – may be a tournament too early for him but on the other hand Dzagoev’s injury might open up an opportunity for him. Hamsik, like Bale, is the obvious key player for his side so perhaps Duda, touted as his successor is an emerging name to watch. England? Much as I want to point out the obvious exciting young players the key to this tournament for them is how Rooney’s crowbarred into the side. So maybe not for what he might do on the pitch but in how his inclusion affects England’s balance it has to be the ‘Big Man’.


Joao: Forward Bale scored seven of his team’s eleven goals. Midfielders Ramsey and Allen were part of Great Britain’s Olympic team four years ago. Beside Ramsey and Allen, left back Neil Taylor was also a member of that Great Britain Olympic team. That was the closest that Welsh players ever were from a major tournament. Goalkeeper Kozácik  (for Slovakia) played every minute of every game. Midfielder Hamsik was the team’s top scorer with 5 goals, while winger Weiss tops the assists table in with 6. Akinfeev was the most used Russian player during the qualifiers, with defender Ignashevich playing every minute of every match in Russia’s last three major tournaments, and newcomer forward Dzyuba was Russia’s top scorer in the qualifiers with 8 goals in 8 matches. For England, goalkeeper Hart, defender Cahill and forward Rooney were the most used players during the qualifiers. Rooney was the team’s top scorer with 7 goals in 8 matches, and he also scored 5 goals in his previous 6 Euro matches.




Game to Watch



Michael: Wales/England seems so obvious, but I’ll go with Russia/Wales, which is a bit of a grudge game after 2003, and which will probably be vital for both.



Jon: Hey, after the 5-1 mauling at home in 2008 Slovakia’s a grudge game too! The Slovaks went absolutely Mintal that day… Obviously I’m picking all the Wales games here, particularly the Severn Derby.  Perversely though I’ll go for Russia v Slovakia as a single game as there’s a promise of fluid attacking and good but not great defences.


Gav: Got to be Wales v England, no?


Michael: What you gonna do when Gareth Bale-a-mania runs wild over you?


Gav: Hope that Macho Man Vardy Savage does the job for us!


Michael: When it comes crashing down and it hurts inside, you just know that Rooneys gone and fluffed a chance...


Jon: Thank god I’m not stuck in a room with these two during Royal Rumble season.






Predictions


Michael:

1. England

2. Slovakia

3. Russia

4. Wales



Gav:



1. England

2. Former Southampton player Gareth Bale

3. Slovakia

4. Russia



Joao:
1. England

2. Russia

3. Slovaia

4. Wales



England should win the group. Wales and Slovakia are Euro debutants, and Russia can be a threat but they couldn’t even advance from the groups in 2012, unlike England. Russia seems to be the second strongest team in their group, although in the qualifiers they only got 20 points in 10 matches, while Wales got 21, Slovakia 22 and England 30. Against Spain and Ukraine, other Euro 2016 participants, Slovakia got seven points in four matches. If they show the same strength now, they should be able to at least finish third. Apparently Wales are the group’s weakest team and should finish in the last place.





Jon:

1. Wales

2. Who cares?

3. Whatever

4. Not bothered

(Or, taking the heart out of it as much as I can – England, Russia, Wales, Slovakia)




And that was the group that was.