English confidence grows as Battle of Britain looms
Published 13/12/2015 | 02:30
There will be familiar faces - and familiar places - for England at Euro 2016. In the draw at the Palais de Congres, there was always a 50/50 chance that they would be up against one of the 'home' nations and they duly were as Wales joined them in Group B. But the odds are certainly not stacked against Roy Hodgson's side. England will surely believe they can progress out of this group and into the last 16. Wales can also have real hope.
There will be a "Battle of Britain", something Wales coach Chris Coleman said he wanted to avoid, with both countries being joined by Russia and Slovakia in a draw that is certainly not as tricky as delivered to other teams. Spare a thought for the Republic of Ireland, who will face Belgium, Italy and Sweden in Group E, and even more so for Northern Ireland, who have been drawn with Germany, Ukraine and Poland in Group C in what turned out to be a well-balanced draw between the 24 countries.
There was no throat-slitting gesture from Football Association chairman Greg Dyke - as he infamously did after England were drawn with Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica at the last World Cup (a gesture that proved prophetic) - but Hodgson and his players will still have to take care. In a strange quirk of fate, Group B also takes England to three of the French cities they played in during the 1998 World Cup finals. This time it will be Russia in Marseille on June 11 - the day after the tournament begins - 17 years ago, they beat Tunisia there in an occasion marked by fan violence and tear gas as well as a victory.
Then there will be Wales in Lens - where England played in 1998, beating Colombia 2-0 - on Thursday June 16 before they face Slovakia in Saint-Etienne in their final group tie on Monday June 20. Again, they played previously in St Etienne - agonisingly losing on penalties to Argentina in that same World Cup when Michael Owen scored a wonder goal and David Beckham was sent off. If they win Group B - as they will have a good chance of doing, surely - then they will have a round of 16 tie in Paris against the third-placed nation from groups A, C or D.
But, first, get out of the group. With the first two and the best-placed third nation from the six four-team groups progressing, that should be likely. The tie with Wales, given the lack of real excitement around the other two opponents, will obviously provoke the most interest. Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Ashley Williams. That is a spine of a team that cannot easily be dismissed and England will know that. It could be a match that takes a lot out of each opponent and will also be an emotionally-charged occasion. Hopefully it will not become too much of a distraction, either, although there is clearly a danger of that. The build-up will be big.
But Wales have waited 58 years to be at a major finals and will be so highly-motivated to progress. Their danger is evident having also only lost one game in qualifying, away to Bosnia, with Bale having scored seven of their 11 goals. If he is fit and firing then it could be an epic contest for England.
Russia would have been a far more delicious prospect - in terms of interest - had Fabio Capello not been sacked as manager last July. His replacement, Leonid Slutsky, has been typically dour and dogged with a squad dominated by players from CSKA Moscow. Russia qualified despite claiming only eight points from their first six matches under Capello. They then won their remaining four - to pip Sweden to automatic qualification - so are in form and confident. And organised.
Slovakia make up England's group and are only at a major tournament for a second time. However, they should not be easily discounted - after all, they beat Spain in qualifying for Euro 2016, so are no pushover. Indeed Slovakia - whose side includes Liverpool's Martin Skrtel - qualified after winning their first six ties, although they fell away towards the end of the campaign and only scraped through at Ukraine's expense.
It could have been easier for England, but it could have been a whole lot worse. OK, France have Romania, Albania and Switzerland but another of the top seeds - Spain, the holders of course - have been dealt the Czech Republic, Turkey and Croatia.
The finals will kick off at the Stade de France on Friday June 10, with the hosts against Romania and with the final 30 days later on Sunday July 10 at the same stadium. There will be 51 matches, therefore 20 more games than in previous tournaments, with a new round of 16 incorporated, spread across the nine host cities and 10 stadia with two venues in the capital, Paris.
How England fare will determine whether or not Roy Hodgson remains as manager beyond the finals when his current contract expires. The FA is understandably reluctant to quantify what constitutes success - although it has not stopped Dyke declaring he expects England to win it (as well as the 2022 World Cup) - but the message is simple: must do better.
Must do better than the last World Cup, going out after two matches, but also Euro 2012, when England limped through the group to be beaten on penalties by Italy in the quarter-finals. The last eight and beyond must be the bare minimum requirement, although whether the FA have the ability to be ruthless remains to be seen. Hodgson cannot simply be retained because he is a good guy.
This draw has pulled out some very well balanced and intriguing groups after a qualification campaign that drew more interest and excitement than in previous years. If the finals are the same, then there is a glorious tournament in prospect.