Game of the Day: England vs Wales, Lens, 14:00
Two games left. Three teams qualify from the group. It sounds easy enough? But after Slovakia’s defeat of Russia yesterday, has England’s game against Wales become ‘must win’?
Slovakia’s 2-1 victory over Russia on Wednesday really has changed the complexion of Group B. If England fail to beat Gareth Bale and co in Lens, England will see themselves at best in third place going into the final round of games and whilst a win against Slovakia will basically guarantee qualification, a third place finish will see possibly a round of 16 tie against potentially the likes of France or even Spain. Such an outcome will be an unmitigated disaster of a campaign for Roy and Wayne as this is a group they should so easily of dominated.
That isn’t to do a disservice to the likes of Wales but when the Euro 2016 draw was made, England’s group certainly isn’t of the same standard as the likes of Spain’s or Germany’s, especially after seeing the calibre of performance England produced against Russia.
England’s performance against Russia however is perhaps the best performance seen at the Euro’s to date. Italy’s dismantling of Belgium aside; none of the other ‘big’ nations appear to be fully at the races (France especially after a very unconvincing 2-0 victory over Albania in Marseille).
Roy Hodgson implemented a system not seen in the three warm up fixtures against Russia, with Rooney dropping back into a midfield three alongside Eric Dier and Dele Alli. Whilst up top Harry Kane played centrally with Adam Lallana and the truly and utterly underwhelming Raheem Sterling flanking the Spurs hitman. And the system worked.
Wayne Rooney looked energised and incisive. He was Mr Geppetto and this England side was his Pinocchio as he pulled the strings across the field. Adam Lallana, who put in a brilliant performance against Germany earlier this year, looked fantastic cutting in from the flank and linking with the likes of Kyle Walker, Dele Alli and Harry Kane. And yet in typical England fashion this wasn’t quite enough.
England at the 2014 World Cup put in strong performances against Italy and Uruguay, but wasn’t clinical enough and the opening game of Euro 2016 echoed such performances with Russia last minute equaliser.
Roy had to face questions after the game about the substitution of Wayne Rooney and whether that contributed to Russia’s ability to get back into game but the Russian goal wasn’t emblematic of the performance. It was a footballing freak as Vasili Berezutski leapt like salmon to loop the most fortuitous headers in off the far post. At the time I blamed Joe Hart, but only after watching the replays it really was just one of those things.
Wales on the other hand delivered. Even after Slovakia’s victory against Russia, Wales sit top of the group and will know that anything but a defeat will see them place one foot into the knockouts.
Whether it be Gareth Bale’s free kick, Ben Davies goal line clearance or Hal Robson-Kanu’s scuffed winner, Wales seems to have a team spirit that makes magic happen. It will be foolish to say that Wales will win the Euro’s but Chris Coleman has got them playing together and for each other.
The key to this fixture has to be Gareth Bale and whether he can exert his influence as creator-in-chief and goal scorer. So much of the Welsh game plan goes through Bale, whether that be his ability to finish a cross or with a burst of pace start a counter attack, England will have to stifle Bale’s supply lines if they are to dominate play.
After Italy vs Belgium, this was the next game I was personally looking forward too. With so many British based players, this fixture will have an air of the Premier League about it in Lens, so expect a fast pace and a physicality not usually seen in International tournament.
Will Hodgson make changes? I expect not, but you have to really question the retention of Raheem Sterling. Whilst not his best position, playing Jamie Vardy wide left would certainly offer an interesting dynamic as Coleman plays with three at the back.
Wales could welcome back the likes of Joe Ledley and Hal Robson-Kanu from the start against England but one player who would be greatly unfortunate to miss out on a starting berth is Crystal Palace player Johnny Williams who was superb against Slovakia.
I want to say I can see an England win but for some reason my gut is screaming draw and nervous final 90 minutes against Slovakia for England.
Rich, The Sweeper Football Blog