Peerless in qualifying, England’s bi-annual attempt at avoiding more tournament heartbreak begins in Marseille, where they host a Russia side who are hardly inspiring confidence ahead of their fourth consecutive European Championships appearance.
Selection issues have been rife for Three Lions boss Roy Hodgson, but an injury crisis has suddenly left Russia’s Leonid Slutsky short of a few star names.
Here, football writer and renowned tactics expert Jonathan Wilson offers his lowdown on England, whilst Russian football guru Artur Petrosyan gives a bleak outlook for their opponents.
Jonathan Wilson on England:Roy Hodgson’s preparations have left him with two options in terms of formations – a 4-3-1-2 or a 4-3-3. There is an argument that against a Russia side likely to sit deep it makes sense to spread the play with a 4-3-3, but given the injury problems Russia have at the back of midfield, a case can be made for England to begin with two strikers.
Harry Kane is a certain starter, but the question then is whether to use Jamie Vardy, who may not find much of the space he thrives on behind the Russian defence, or to look to use players more naturally adept at dropping deep or pulling wide. The suggestion from the camp on Friday morning was that all five of Kane, Wayne Rooney, Adam Lallana, Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli would play, which suggests an attack-minded 4-3-3 with Lallana and Sterling wide and Alli and Rooney in midfield.
Artur Petrosyan on Russia: Russia keep losing players.
After Alan Dzagoev’s withdrawal a few days before naming the squad, manager Leonid Slutsky had to cope with Roman Shirokov’s injury at training and Igor Denisov’s torn hamstring in the last friendly against Serbia. So now of three central midfielders who were regulars during the qualifying campaign, two are completely out and the third, Shirokov, can barely play for half an hour.
The problem is there are no straight replacements for Dzagoev or Denisov. The former has become a vital player for both CSKA and the national team, being the link between the defence and midfield, and the midfield and attack. The latter is the only pure holding midfielder, meaning the old centre-back partnership of 36-year-old Sergei Ignashevich and 33-year-old Vasili Berezutsky will be even more exposed.
Wilson: England won all 10 qualifiers and have won 17 of 21 games since their disappointing World Cup exit. There were set-backs against Spain and the Netherlands in recent friendlies, and much prognostication about a laboured 1-0 win over Portugal, but overall the signs are very positive. Even that Portugal game showcased a defensive solidity that had been lacking.
Petrosyan: Russia have won only one of four friendlies in 2016 – beating Lithuania 3-0 in March. A sound loss to France (4-2) followed a few days after.
Two games in June were hugely disappointing, not because of results, but mainly due to the quality (or lack of it). Russia lost 2-1 to the Czech Republic and drew with Serbia 1-1.
Wilson: It may not be an especially glamorous selection, but Eric Dier is essential to everything England do at this Euros. He is the high-class holding midfielder they’ve been lacking for years, somebody who distributes well and has the positional sense to protect the back four. The likelihood is that England will have most of the ball but, despite Russia’s problems in midfield, their attacking threat on the break shouldn’t be underestimated. Dier is key to checking it.
Petrosyan: The answer to this two weeks ago would’ve been Dzagoev. The answer to this last week would’ve been Denisov. It basically explains the size of a problem Russia have to deal with before the Euros.
So now it can be either Artem Dzyuba, a big and clumsy forward who scored eight goals in the qualifying, or Oleg Shatov, whose best position is left winger (10 goals and eight assists this season), but has to be used in central midfield after Dzagoev’s withdrawal.
Wilson: Leonid Slutsky is an excellent coach but his plans have been hampered by the injuries to Igor Denisov and Alan Dzagoev. Nothing’s ever certain but England to win at 1.92 looks decent value given Russia’s problems.
Petrosyan: Full back positions is another headache for Leonid Slutsky. Right back Igor Smolnikov has looked poor in the recent friendlies, and a left back position is still up for grabs after Yuri Zhirkov’s withdrawal. So betting on England’s corners looks good. Russia managed to concede seven corners in the first 15 minutes of last Sunday’s friendly against Serbia!
England to have more corners is 1.57, or 1.95 with a -1 handicap.
Wilson: An England corner, Russia distracted by more obvious threats and Chris Smalling, high from his goal against Portugal, to nod in the opener? It’s 31.00.
Petrosyan: Race To 2 Goals at 2.45 looks good for England. You could try Race To 3 Goals at 5.50, even though there’s obviously more risk in it, especially if Roy Hodgson keeps playing Wayne Rooney in the centre and Harry Kane/Jamie Vardy out wide.
Wilson: England 2-0 Russia at 8.50
Petrosyan: England 3-1 Russia at 19.00