With the EUFA Euro 2016 tournament soon to get under way, let’s look at how the home-nations qualifiers – England, Wales and Northern Ireland – are predicted to fare. In what seems to be a more open competition than in recent years, all three national managers will be hoping for an injury-free preparation period to maximise their chances of progressing through the group stage in France.
Roy Hodgson’s team of unbeaten qualifiers has a youthful profile and is captained by Wayne Rooney, a seasoned international. Though Rooney’s talent has rarely been a dominant feature of England’s recent tournament performances, he has played well during the qualifying campaign and is arguably under less pressure now his team can offer more diverse attacking options.
The current England squad is comparatively strong with good cover everywhere, except perhaps at centre-back. Here the fitness and form of the regular pairing of Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill is vital, and with only John Stones offering a viable alternative in this crucial role, this is what may ultimately determine the team’s tournament progress. Elsewhere, England can call upon hard-working, speedy defenders, with the likes of Danny Rose and Kyle Walker also operating as skilled attacking players out wide.
Hodgson’s midfield selection will determine the team’s pattern of play, and Alli, Barkley, Dier, Drinkwater, Lallana, Sterling, Wilshere and others will be hoping they get the chance to put England on the front foot with a fluent and powerful display. As with the midfield, England’s strikers offer a blend of youth and experience, with Rooney, Kane and Sturridge, plus the mercurial talents of Vardy and Rashford, all looking to start and make an impact.
Set up for lightening counter attacks, this team is unlikely to emulate the functional, understated tournament play of previously unsuccessful England contenders and should be too much for Russia in the opening game. With Slovakia also ripe for the taking, it seems the game against Wales will be the pivotal moment of the opening round for both teams.
Chris Coleman’s Welsh team are now 15th in the world rankings and have become a unified group of solid performers. Having massively over-achieved during the qualifying phase by coming second in their group behind Belgium, one of Euro 2016’s front-runners, Wales are in-form, full of confidence, and likely to prove awkward opponents whoever they face.
Though the ‘galactico’ talents of Gareth Bale have undoubtedly inspired the Welsh to reach new heights, his stellar skills are well supported by the presence of several Premier League stars, such as Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey. Wales are predicted to play a 5-3-2 line-up with a twin strike force of Bale and Robson-Kanu. The midfield choices include the likes of Allen and Ledley, plus Ramsey himself, whose constant late arrivals always offer a potent goal threat.
In defence, Wales will depend upon the determination and experience of Ashley Williams and James Collins, plus the reassuring presence of the Crystal Palace goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey commanding his penalty area. As a team, they will fear neither Russia nor Slovakia, which seems destined to make the match against England an important decider.
Michael O’Neill’s side were a surprise home-nations qualifier and face a tough task competing against Germany, Poland and Ukraine at the group stage. Nevertheless, having won their own qualifying group, Northern Ireland’s team clearly understand how to win at international level. With a defence bolstered by Paddy McNair and Jonny Evans, plus the midfield talents of Southampton’s Steven Davis and the consistent goal-scoring abilities of Kyle Lafferty, the men in green and white are capable of playing a penetrative game and so remain a team of outsiders it would be very dangerous to underestimate.