The Road to UEFA Euro 2016: Group B (The "All About England" Group)
It’s time! It’s time! It’s predicting Group B of Euro 2016 time. Yes against all odds myself, Oliver, Matt and the Leafster (no Randall. He’s graciously bowed out) have come together only a day after our Group A preview to deliver you some more football goodness. Today we’re breaking down Group B, a Group that is sure to inspire more emotion than the previous one due to Ryan and Ollie’s home country being involved. Thank goodness Matt and I were spared Australia and Canada being in this right? And yes, I live in America. Let’s just go with me being a Canadian trapped in an American body shall we? Good. Let’s get started!
Oliver: England. England, England, England. What do you say about your home nation? The truth, I guess – we haven’t had such a wealth of forward options since 96/98. Unfortunately, it’s supported by the worst crop of defensive players you’re likely to see, and a manager who doesn’t seem to understand where the real strengths of the side lie. The biggest talking point is that we were unbeaten in qualifying and eased through the group, but that sort of hides that we have also lost to the Dutch (who aren’t even at the Euros) and Spain in that time in friendlies, and were lucky to win against Germany too. Truth be told, we’re still not as good as the best teams, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see us get found out in the last 16 against the group C/D third placed team. Then again, with Kane and Vardy leading the line, maybe we might just keep scoring and make it further than anyone imagines?
(P.S. No Drinkwater? What more could he have done to get picked for England?)
Ryan: In our last edition, I noted that the Swiss side was particularly young on average, though Roy Hodgson's three lions are now officially the youngest side at the tournament, with an average age of 25.9 years. It is also the youngest England side in more than half a century! I'm a big youth advocate as we've seen many years with the same "big names" being picked for sides - where form has not been the substitute for reputation. Fortunately, with this side, form, reputation and youth have formed a deadly combination. Take away a few liabilities such as barely-fit Daniel Sturridge, James Milner and Jack Wilshere (with the latter not having played a full Premier League game since September 2014), and you have a very exciting and capable side. It's those injuries that really leave us with questions. With the addition of an extra knock-out round, England need all the players they can get, so will these injury woes derail them?
Matt: Agh. England. I don't even like talking about them or seeing them do good in any tournament. They won all of their bloody qualifying matches and with a goal differential of 28. That's quite impressive. I think this is a semi final caliber team at worst. I should be asking Oli and Leafy this, but how high are the hopes of the England fans here? They seem to get them up and in a heartbeat they get crushed. The attack and speed that this team has in the midfield and attack is scary. Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Jack Wilshere, Dele Alli, Harry Kane, Ross Barkley, Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana, Wayne Rooney, Jamie Vardy, Daniel Sturridge and Marcus Rashford. The potential is there. And as a supporter of Germany reading those names does make me a little scared. I haven't seen England's final squad announcement but if it was me I'd be doing everything I could to get Sturridge and Rashford in the squad and making room with getting rid of stupid name guy. Iken will know who I'm talking about there. I don't like England's defence though. I don't like the depth. They can score that I'm not worried about. But when they come up against better competition will they be able to keep them out? They have the depth up front and in the middle to bring someone in if someone goes down with an injury. But if Rose, Clyne or Walker get injured I wonder what that does to England's chances. Significantly decreases it for me. England will be in cruise control against Slovakia and Russia here. Do I think they won't beat Wales? In my head I truly feel they leave the group stage with 9 points but I'm sticking by going out on a limb and saying Wales and England will play out a draw and Wales will have a greater goal differential. This is a semi final caliber squad. Can they go all the way? Only time will tell. I think not though.
Cult: Stop the presses; are the English actually good? Because I’m looking at the roster here dudes and I’ve got to say; this roster looks pretty explosive. I see several exciting players at forward (I’d make the argument that captain Wayne Rooney is actually the worst striker of the five), I see one of the top keepers in the world and a man coming off a great Champions League run in net (seriously, don’t sleep on Joe Hart) and most importantly I see a great influx of youth mixed with the veterans on this team. This is an excellent squad guys and on paper, they should easily win this Group.
Of course this is England we’re talking about, which means even when things are good everyone is prepared for the sky to fall. I don’t want to be that guy here…and yet I will anyway. As good as England’s attack is, the defensive line is suspect (seven goals in the last four games!), some of manager Roy Hodgson’s choice for midfielders are baffling (how Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana got picked over Danny Drinkwater and Jonjo Shelvey is the greatest mystery since James Franco’s rise to fame) and, if I’m being honest, the prospect of Rooney, an English legend, playing big minutes troubles me. Every other English striker, from Jamie Vardy to Marcus Rashford to Daniel Sturridge to even Satan himself Harry Kane is a better, faster, more dynamic scorer than Rooney is at this stage of his career. Despite all of that I’m willing to bet Hodgson (a good but not great manager) goes with his captain too often and forces two of those other four to sit on the bench (and you just know those two will be Vardy and Rashford, the two fastest strikers who can really cause problems). If he does, I can see England struggling to score goals and Joe Hart having to be other worldly again just to keep them in games. Basically my message to Hodgson is this; play Vardy and Rashford. Hell play them together! The sky may fall in again, but at least you’ll have two hard working speeders (one of who is only 18) wreaking havoc as opposed to Rooney trying to relive the mid 00’s to the chagrin of two of my co-writers.
Cult: I bet there’s going to be several readers who scoff at this and go “Really? Russia? Don’t they just play hockey?” In the words of Lee Corso, not so fast my friend. Every time the Russkies (can I use that term?) show up to one of these competitions they always surprise, and don’t be shocked if they do so again here. No they don’t have the talent of the English or even the Welsh (more on them soon!), but I like the fact that they’ve all played a ton together (especially the defensive unit), I like their keeper Igor Akinfeev and I really like the fact that they’re managed by Leonoid Slutsky, a) because he’s really good, b) because he manages half of the Russian team at his day job with CSKA Moscow and c) because his last name is Slutsky. You can’t make that stuff up. Put all of that together and Russia will challenge for second place and I wouldn’t rule them out as a sleeper for first. It’s England; you can never discount them being leaped over and left for dead in a big time football tournament.
Oliver: Fear the team of the Great and Fearless Vladimir Putin at your peril, rest of the tournament. Or not, because Russia is kind of crap. They have a notable player or two – Igor Akinfeev remains one of the best goalkeepers, and it always surprises me that he’s not left the country to play for a big European team. The only thing is the rest of them are somewhat unknown quantities to me. One player I do really like is Roman Neustädter, the only non-Russian based player in the squad. Confused by his German sounding name? Don’t be he’s German and has two international caps for them. Confused about why I’m talking about him in the Russian preview? Don’t be, he got a Russian passport on May 29th having been born there. I’ve seen him a lot for Shalke in the past couple of years, and he’s a very good defensive midfielder. Plus, he’s available on a free transfer this summer. I’ve already asked the two Dave’s to sign him, so it will happen (it won’t happen).
Anyways, Russia will advance, because the system is ridiculous and there’s no way they won’t finish in one of the three qualifying positions. Oh yes, I’m calling it, this is a group where three teams qualify.
Ryan: The most interesting factor concerning Russia's squad is that only Roman Neustädter plays away from home base. He earns his trade in Germany, and quite frankly, this Russian side will have to play like the World Cup winners to even succeed! They just lost to the Czech Republic 1-2 tonight thanks to a last minute goal, which will most certainly stun them ahead of the tournament. Honestly, this team is full of old legs but without some of the old glitzy names of the past such as Arshavin and Pavlyuchenko. Perhaps most recognizable is their keeper Akinfeev, who isn't a terribly bad pick on the likes of Football and Soccer Manager. Still, you can never quite rule Russia out. A certain England manager made that mistake on the route to Euro 2008. The Lions never qualified. We don't talk about that man.
Matt: Well Russia didn't have the best of starts to their campaign with Fabio Capello given the boot after six matches. Since then Leonid Slutsky has taken over and I think Russia have looked a much better team. Especially down back after only conceding one goal in their past four games, all of which they won. It will help having both, Igor Akinfeev and Sergei Ignashevich, teammates for CSKA Moscow. Their history in the tournament isn't that good but they did make a semi final run in 2008. So they have been there before. I'm intrigued to see how Roman Neustädter plays in this tournament as he's the only player in this squad who doesn't play in the Russian leagues. This isn't the best squad that they have put out but I have a dark horse feel to this team of sorts. I'm not sure. I'm conflicted. I don't know if their squad is too old. It will give them experience but not sure they can keep up with the young speedsters on the England and Wales squads. They'll get the win against Slovakia and may surprise a few out there with their performance against England or Wales. A win against them wouldn't shock me that much as it would others. I do however expect them to finish 3rd.
Matt: With Slovakia now being an independent country this is the first time that they too will make their first appearance at Euro Competition. They came into the completion on the back of six straight wins. They finished five points back on Spain but in the midst of those six straight wins they did in fact beat Spain 2-1. Their squad is old. Too old for my liking. They have experience but not much international experience. I think they will put up a decent fight in the first half of games but I think the second half they will start to fall off and the skill and depth of the other squads will shine through and they'll kick on. I like the compact and defensive mindset they have and play with. But I'm a defensive minded football fan. Not everyone's cup of tea is it, Iken? Juraj Kucka is the backbone and heart of that defence. If he plays well this team has a chance to play well. Marek Hamsik is going to need to score. Those five goals he scored in qualifying would go along way of helping them here. But alas I don't think they have enough depth in this squad to progress here. Perhaps they can beat Russia. They did lose 4-0 to France not too long ago. But at the end of the day I expect them to finish bottom of this group. Qualifying in of itself should be a great accomplishment for these guys.
Cult: And we’ve reached the runt of this otherwise pretty solid group. To be honest, Slovakia isn’t that bad; I mean you can’t be when you have the immortal Martin Skrtel manning the back line right? The problem is they’re just actively not as good as the other three teams in this field, particularly when it comes to putting the ball in the net. Aside from midfielders Stanislav Sestak and Marek Hamsik, no one on Slovakia has scored 10 or more goals. That’s no good as Sonic the Hedgehog would say. Slovakia will scrap and claw and it wouldn’t stun me if they stole a tie. But anyone expecting higher than a fourth place finish here is delusional. Like even more so than the people who think AJ Styles will actually win his current feud over John Cena.
Oliver: Slovakia have walking, talking, FIFA model Marek Hamšík. Have you ever seen him? He looks like he should be controlled by a human with plastic in their hands. The funny thing about Slovakia is that you look at the name and you think ‘minnows, will struggle’ but in truth they actually have some really good players who ply their trade at the highest level – Stoch, Kucka, Škrtel, Gyömbér and the aforementioned Hamšík. My biggest concern is where their goals will come from – they don’t seem to have a talented forward to stick the ball in the net, and that could scupper them. They’ll probably play some nice build up play, but if they can’t get it in the onion bag they’re going to struggle, and I think they might just narrowly miss out. This is going to be a super close group, though, and third place might well be whoever emerges victorious between Slovakia and Russia.
Ryan: Prior to Euro 2016, Slovakia has only ever qualified for one tournament since their famous geographical split. That tournament was World Cup 2010. They made it through the group that time with a win, a loss and a draw. Bizarrely, in a group with New Zealand, Paraguay and Italy, it was the Italians who they beat! The Slovakians will be looking for another miracle as they compete in only the second tournament that they have qualified for since 1996. Truth be told, I've only heard of ex-Manchester City reserve player Vladimir Weiss and their captain, Liverpool's Martin Skrtel. Of course, football is about getting it done on the pitch, not the name you hold beyond it. Even so, can you see the likes of Vardy, Kane and Bale fearing what they don't know? I'm predicting three losses here. I'm sorry Martin.
Ryan: The Welsh have earned a rare spot in this tournament though their squad is certainly no strangers to other countries. The side is predominantly made of English league players (including Swansea City mind you), with Owain Fon Williams as the sole Scottish league player and there's a certain La Liga superstar in there too. All eyes will be on Gareth Bale. The Welsh are lucky to have one of the best players in the world, and they would be foolish not to let him be their playmaker. Or would they? Arguably, Bale has to not only make plays but be the man to finish it. No other forward player in the Welsh squad played a game in the top league of their domestic choice last season. In the squad, the highest forward scorer besides Bale is Burnley's Sam Vokes, who has only managed 6 goals in 39 appearances against international opposition. Let me blow your mind by putting that into perspective. Excluding Bale, Wales' attacking players have scored 11 goals in a combined 111 appearances for their country - scoring a goal 9.9% of the time, every 10 games basically! Add in Gareth Bale and we're now talking 30 goals in 165 games for the Welsh stars. That doubles the Welsh scoring rate EXACTLY to a still-lowly but undoubtedly better 18.18%. The concern I have with that is that Bale simply can't do it all. He certainly found his scoring boots for Madrid this season, though he also had to sit out a number of games due to injury. I just think Bale might wear himself down to the ground with the flurry of games that the Welsh will have to play and the men that he may need to carry.
Matt: Wales have finally made the European Championships! Yay. To think Ryan Giggs never got to pull on a Welsh jersey for a World Cup or a Euro Competition is actually quite sad to think about. One of the few things that amazing man never got to accomplish. How far can Wales ride Bale here is the question for me? He scored 7 of their 11 goals in qualifying but what makes me worry are all the teams that finished lower than Wales scored more goals than them. It can't just be pass the ball to Bale and let him do all the work. Aaron Ramsay needs to stand up big in this tournament for me. Sam Vokes too. Something I didn't know till I was looking up their stats but only England, Spain and yes, Romania, are the only teams to have conceded less goals through the qualifying process. I expect Wales to pick up wins against Russia and Slovakia but I don't think they have enough to beat England. I think a draw will be the best they can get out of it. I'm going with Wales win finish top though. But on goal difference. Going out on a limb with that.
Cult: If I’m an English supporter, the Welsh team absolutely terrifies me. Well actually everything terrifies me, but Wales first and foremost does! Don’t let the Welsh’s history of being Canadian football team esq fool you; this squad is loaded with talent. Gareth Bale, as easy to loathe as he is, is one of the top players in the world. Aaron Ramsey is a killer midfielder. Joe Allen will be the same pesky scrapper he was for Liverpool. Ashley Williams and James Collins are stout, reliable defenders. And have I mentioned that Leicester City’s iron man Andy King made the squad and will be doing awesome things like this for the Welsh?
Really the only advantages England has over Wales is more forwards and a better keeper (unless you’re into the Wayne Hennessey/Danny Ward/Owain Fon Williams three headed monster). Besides that this is a squad that not only will advance to the Knockout Stage but I believe can seriously challenge the English for the first place spot. That’s precisely why the game between England and Wales (the 2nd of the Group) is a much watch; well that and everyone around the world rooting against Bale and Kane. I’m personally hoping the two come to blows slap fight style, all while Vardy and King watch from the sidelines, laughing hysterically.
Oliver: Forget Bale. Forget Ledley. Forget Hennesey, Williams and Ramsey. There’s only one player you need to know about for Wales. The one, the only, Ginger Pele James Collins!
Alright, so I’m overstating it, but look at that beard. What a beast. A rock around which defences should be built is Ginge. He’ll provide a fine platform for the more tricksy of Wales’ forwards, and Bale, to propel forward off of. I think so much has been written about Bale in the past however many years that he’s going to be the focus, and a lot of the rest of the Welsh squad is largely mid-level players for top teams, or top players for mid-level teams, but I quite fancy them. Coleman is a great manager, and the team has a good unity about it which will only serve to benefit them. I have a feeling they’ll defeat Russia and Slovakia, as well as giving England a run for their money in the middle. Could definitely see them as the group runners up, or even winners if England Spurs it all up.
Oliver: 1. England, 2. Wales, 3. Russia, 4. Slovakia.
Ryan: I can't see the Three Lions not beating Slovakia and Wales, no matter how much magic Gareth Bale pulls off. Russia are not the same team that they were the last time this tournament came around though something about their gritty style worries me a little and I could quite easily see a 1-1 draw there. I think by the time of the final game, both Wales and Russia will have beaten Slovakia, leaving them out of contention. Russia would be on four points with Wales on three. At that point, in the final group stage match, I think Gareth Bale won't be playing the full match, and I am going to predict a draw here whilst England goes on to beat Slovakia. This would give us:
England- 7 points
Russia - 5 points
Wales - 4 points
Slovakia - 0 points
Wales would qualify as one of the best third place teams. Fear not Gareth!
Matt: Pretty straightforward this group I feel. Slovakia to finish 4th. Russia in 3rd. And England and Wales to finish 1st and 2nd. The order though? That's not straightforward. I feel it will be whomever scores the most goals against Russia and Slovakia as I'm feeling England and Wales will play to a draw. I'm leaning towards Wales will come away with the better goal differential and will therefore finish 1st and England 2nd.
Cult: Get ready to clutch your chest sports fans; Wales is winning this Group. You heard that right; Wales will beat England to win this Group. You will now hear two sounds; millions of Brits screaming in agony and one named Mario “Mazza” Roussety nodding in emotionless agreement has he turns on The Chaperone for his 1 millionth viewing. Silver lining for those across the pond; England will get second and move on to the Knockout Round. So will Russia as well with a third place finish. Everyone but Slovakia is invited!
And we’re done, just like Chuck Norris against Bruce Lee in Way of the Dragon (I had it on while waiting for Lucha Underground!). I’ll hopefully be back tomorrow with the guys (and the disappearing man himself Randall) for our preview of Group C, but if not we’ll certainly be back by Saturday at the latest. Till then, an Andy King meme because the rest of you jokers didn't talk about him! Andy King shall not be ignored!