Quite possibly the deepest European Group from the draw, Group B possesses four teams that will be disappointed not to make the knock-out rounds. One team is riding high on a flawless qualifying campaign and a newfound style, one is hoping that it’s finally the year their superstar has the right cast. Two more are hoping that they can find their health and the right combination to send them onward.
How did they get here, how do they play, and who should we watch for?
FIFA Ranking: 11
Recent Form: May 22a��England 2-1 Turkey (friendly); May 27a��England 2-1 Australia (friendly); June 2a��England 1a��0 Portugal (friendly)
England, perhaps better known as Team Tottenham, have certainly been looking like a European competitor of late. Wins against France and Germany will do that for you. Or perhaps starting some combination of Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Jamie Vardy, and Wayne Rooney will. I’m not sure.
They were perfect in qualification. 30 points from 10 games, the Brits found the net 31 times while conceding 3. Roy Hodgson and his lads have been flexible; 4-3-3, 4-1-2-1-2, or 4-4-2a��they’ve looked good in all of them, playing with pace and fluidity that hadn’t been seen in an England squad for the better part of a decade and a half, if ever.
The only question for England is how to fit all that attacking talent onto one field.
Key Player: Dele Alli
You thought perhaps Harry Kane or Jaime Vardy? Maybe I’d say Eric Dier or Gary Cahill who must martial the back and keep the shots scarce for Joe Hart. No. England’s key is the young, inexperienced explosion of playmaking that is Dele Alli. England’s Young Player of the Year, and a young man who has risen quickly from the ranks of League 1, Alli will need to keep his temper in check if he’s to lead England to a deep run and a possible trophy.
Quick both on and off the ball, Alli excels at finding space, making a touch, and picking out a killer pass. And he’s no slouch before the net either. The challenge for Hodgson will be finding a way for Alli to play in his favored position just behind the strikers, a position that Hodgson may hope to save for the displaced captain Wayne Rooney.
However, at his best, Alli is more deserving than Vardy. So here’s hoping Hodgson will see sense if he must bench one or the other to make room for the United man.
FIFA Ranking: 29
Recent Form: March 29a��Russia 2-4 France (friendly); June 1a��Russia 1-2 Czech Republic (friendly); June 5a��Russia 1-1 Serbia (friendly)
Russia have beaten who they needed to and not much else in the last year. Second in Group G behind Austria, but ahead of Sweden.
Two years ago I told you that Russia should advance to the knock-out stages in Brazil. We all know now that they did not, although there was certainly more than a little controversy in their shortcomings.
Since then, Italian coach Fabio Capello has gone, and CSKA Moscow’s Leonid Slutsky has taken charge. Although, the CSKA man has not given up his club duties in the interim, leading one to wonder if that may have cost the Russians in some ways as the manager perhaps is not paying as much attention as he otherwise would.
The Russians will likely play in Slutsky’s favored 4-2-3-1 formation, and will depend heavily on the two holding midfielders to protect their shaky back line.
Key Player(s): Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutski
The aging center backs will both need to be at the top of their game if Russia is to have any chance of a run in France. But at 36 and 34 years of age respectively, optimism is sorely lacking. Worse yet, depth at the position is of heavy concern for Slutsky and the Russian faithful, who have seen a revolving door of candidates come in with lackluster performances.
At their best, both players are still capable of solid positioning, strong tackling, and good challenges, but they’ll need to be more than just good.
FIFA Ranking: 24
Recent Form: May 27a��Slovakia 3 a��1 Georgia (friendly); May 29a��Slovakia 3a��1 Germany (friendly); June 3a��Slovakia 0a��0 Northern Ireland (friendly)
Perennial underdogs, Slovakia made an impressive run to finish second in the qualifying group behind Spain (who they beat once) and ahead of a strong Ukrainian squad. That form carried right into the warm-ups where they managed a 3-1 win over defending WC champion Germany.
JA?n KozA?k has lined his squad up mostly in a 4-2-3-1, but has struggled to find a reliable option as the lone striker. Questions of why they continue to play without a second striker up top have been mostly silenced by the threat of Marek HamA?A�k as the central attacking midfielder operating seemingly as a shadow striker, and serving as Slovakia’s main goal threat in the qualifiers.
Another area of concern will be the health of Slovakia’s defense, which held up well in the qualifiers but finished their club seasons with a few knocks in several cases.
Key Player(s): The Forwards
Rumors point toward Michal AZuriA?, who is fresh off a brilliant season for Viktoria PlzeA? in the Czech First League, and is seemingly the only striker not to have disappointed recently up front for his country. But don’t dismiss Adam Nemec, who despite his struggles for club since leaving Union Berlin has a decent track record for Slovakia. Aging stalwart Stanislav A�estA?k is also on the squad and has been reliable, if not brilliant during his time for Slovakia.
Whichever of the three starts up front will need a good performance to draw both attention and pressure off of HamA?A�k. Otherwise, the one-dimensional attack is likely to be snuffed.
FIFA Ranking: 26
Recent Form: March 24a��Wales 1a��1 Northern Ireland (friendly); March 28a��Wales 0a��1 Ukraine (friendly); June 5a��Wales 0a��3 Sweden (friendly)
Fairly solid in a qualifying group that included Belgium and a disappointing Bosnia and Herzegovina, Wales did what they needed to do to advancea��including a surprise victory over the Belgians at home.
What formation Wales might use is up in the air, as manager Chris Coleman has switched several times during the qualifiers, but the 3-4-2-1 with which they beat the Belgians may be their go-to form. Could this finally be the year that Bale and Wales make a shock run?
That will depend a lot on the cast around, and specifically who joins him up front. Aaron Ramsey has been disappointing for Arsenal, and Hal-Robson Kanu, while willing, isn’t much in the way of help.
Key Player: Gareth Bale
Surely you knew this was coming. As usual, Wales lives and dies on Bale, and they’ll need him to cope with the pressure if they’re going to survive the group stage and advance to the knockout rounds.
Strong in the air, an impressive dribbler and a cold-blooded finisher. Bale’s only real weakness is that he often lacks the conviction to come back and defend, which Wales may need him to do in what is a pretty tough group.
Englanda��9 points (W vs Russia, W vs Wales, W vs Slovakia)
Slovakiaa��4 points (D vs Wales, W vs Russia, L vs England)
Walesa��4 points (D vs Slovakia, L vs England, W vs Russia)
Russiaa��0 points (L vs England, L vs Slovakia, L vs Wales)
My faith in Russia is absent, and I’m giving England 9 on talent alone. Realistically, this group is much closer and I wouldn’t be surprised by any of these teams finishing 1-2. Separating Wales and Slovakia is nearly impossible, as Wales should provide more offense. But Slovakia’s defense, if healthy, will be stout.