We’re just three weeks away from the opening ceremony of the European Championships, and now that the domestic football season is all but over attention turns to the summer’s sporting showpiece (with a polite hat tip to the Olympics, of course).
Here’s a quick betting guide to Group B, where a strong UK contingent look set to prosper.
England, bloody England. What can you say about the Three Lions; no major tournament win for 50 years, no real challenge at one either since Euro ’96. On paper, with the players at Roy Hodgson’s disposal, we must be contenders….but in reality? Our track record in big competitions suggests otherwise.
England should work their way through Group B however with consummate ease, and they breezed through qualifying as expected with ten wins from ten.
The good news for Hodgson is that, for the first time in a long time, his best players are those that are right in form. Gone are the days of having to pick Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard due to a lack of alternative options, now we have Jamie Vardy, Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Eric Dier amongst the best players in the Premier League. Rooney’s reinvention as a midfielder could also add some guile and steel to an otherwise flimsy-looking middle of the park.
There are concerns defensively, as there always are with England, but they should progress from Group B as winners with the minimum of fuss.
Russia’s passage to Euro 2016 qualification was hardly scintillating stuff – they finished behind Austria after all – but qualifying automatically ahead of the Zlatan Ibrahimovic inspired Sweden deserves praise.
It really is hard to predict what this Russia side is capable of. In the four friendlies they have played in the last few months they have beaten Portugal and Lithuania but lost to Croatia and France, so we don’t quite know where they’re at.
But the likes of Igor Akinfeev and Sergei Ignashevich have been around long enough to get to grips with big tournament play, while talented creative players like Alan Dzagoev, Denis Cheryshev and Oleg Shatov will hope to provide the ammunition for Artem Dyzuba, who bagged eight goals in as many games in qualifying. At 9/4 to finish second, they are worthy of your time and money.
There is plenty for Wales and the other team in Group B, Slovakia, to play for now that the best third-placed sides will progress to the last 16 in France.
The jewel in their crown is Gareth Bale, obviously, and the Real Madrid forward really came to the party in qualifying with the goals and assists that led his side to second place in what was a stacked group.
This is the Welsh’s first showing at a major tournament, so nerves and naivety could be a factor, but they work so hard for each other and are so well drilled by Chris Coleman that they will be really tough to beat.
They conceded just four goals in qualifying, so if Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Sam Vokes can make things happen at the other end of the pitch, Wales could spring a surprise on Russia. Again, a 9/4 shot to finish third is worthy of investment.
We don’t know much about this Slovakia outfit in truth, although qualifying just behind Spain and ahead of Ukraine deserves respect.
Their standout players are Liverpool’s Martin Skrtel, who as we know is a steady performer, spiky-haired midfield maestro Marek Hamsik and talented frontman Adam Nemec. But in truth they are the weakest side in Group B, and so the Evens on them not to qualify for the last 16 is a mouth-watering proposition.