As England begin their campaign to win their maiden European title, they face a stern but weakened opposition in Russia at the Stade Velodrome on Saturday.


Injuries to key players ahead of the tournament have weakened Russia, but in Leonid Slutsky they have an experienced coach who is capable of bringing out the best in his men. England, on the other hand, have been blessed with a clean bill of health. A fully fit England can beat anyone on their day, which makes it an intriguing fixture to kick things off in Group B.

Leonid Slutsky v Roy Hodgson

Twenty three years his senior, Hodgson has a clear edge in the experience department. In fact, when the England manager started his coaching career, the Russian was only five years old.

Slutsky was roped in to coach the national team in August 2015 to go along with his duties at CSKA Moscow, where they wrapped up their third title in four years. The Englishman, however, has no such distractions and has been given plenty of time to build his squad to his liking. It also means there will be added pressure on him, given he will most likely be out of a job if his team don’t perform well in the tournament.

Slutsky counting on youth to perform well

Russia vs Lithuania
The aforementioned injury worries ahead of the tournament mean that two of Russia’s most experienced midfielders — Igor Denisov and Alan Dzagoev — will miss out in France. The duo, who have 103 caps between them, will be replaced by a pair of midfielders who have only 5, and Slutsky will be counting on the energy of youth rather than the utility of experience.

Although his preferred formation is 4-2-3-1, he might start with a 4-3-3 owing to the absence of Denisov in particular, who will be missed in his holding role. Since taking over as coach, Slutsky has managed to guide his team to four wins out of four to qualify automatically for the tournament. He managed to do it with emphasis on attacking play led by the in-form Oleg Shatov and Artem Dzyuba. They were brilliantly supported in midfield by Aleksandr Golovin, who has been touted as one to watch in this tournament.

Like their counterparts, Russia too have a slight headache in terms of their defensive options. It is an ageing defence that, faced with attackers like Harry Kane and Dele Alli, could well be in trouble.

Hodgson hoping pressure will bring out the best in his players

English national soccer team press conference
As always, coming into a major tournament, the media coverage of the England national team has reached a peak. So much so that an apparent team leak from their assistant manager was the most talked about news of the day.

On that very piece of paper, England were playing in a 4-1-3-2 formation, with both Kane and Jamie Vardy starting up front, flanked by Raheem Sterling on the left and Ross Barkley on the right. Although it was later dismissed as only a training exercise, it gives an interesting insight into the mentality that Hodgson hopes to employ. While there is a lot of conjecture as to what formation he will adopt, a 4-1-2-1-2 looks most likely. Eric Dier is expected to be in his holding midfield role as usual for England. Wayne Rooney could be expected to be at the head of the diamond.

While the attack is an area of much debate, the defence picks itself. If the pre-tournament friendlies are anything to go by, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker will start either side of Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling in defence. Joe Hart is the obvious choice for goalkeeper.

Key battles

Aleksandr Kokorin vs Danny Rose/ Kyle Walker

Lithuania vs England
A versatile winger, Kokorin will be a threat down the wings for Russia. The Zenit St. Petersburg player has been in goalscoring form in the national league, scoring 6 goals in the season gone by. Although his strength has been playing down the middle of midfield, his style of play helps him adapt on the wings too.

The Tottenham fullback duo will be hoping, however, for a quiet evening. Coupled with their defensive responsibilities, they are also expected to go ahead and attack. Kokorin will be aware of this and will be looking to take advantage of the space they vacate.

Artem Dzyuba vs Chris Smalling

If there is one player who carries Russia’s hopes, it is Dzyuba. The Zenit striker has been the form player in the Russian Premier League, scoring 15 goals in his 30 appearances for the club.

Smalling is also coming off a good season for Manchester United and has become the first-choice centre-back for his country ahead of Gary Cahill and John Stones. Dzyuba has been known to use his height and build to his advantage in holding up play and allowing attackers to advance. Smalling will be expecting a physical battle against this tall centre-forward.

Vasili Berezutski vs Harry Kane

Germany vs England
A veteran of 92 caps, 33-year-old Vasili Berezutski is in the twilight of his career, while his direct opponent on Saturday evening is playing in his first major tournament for his country.

Kane will be looking to take advantage of the lack of pace in the Russian defence and if Jamie Vardy starts alongside him, he will look to run the channels. Like his counterpart Dzyuba, Kane is adept at holding up the ball and counts on the power of his shot to score from anywhere inside or outside the box.

Blast from the past

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