A look at the teams and their key players and coach in Group B at the European Championship:
A perfect 10 wins in qualifying and the emergence of new talent: Since the woeful World Cup in 2014, England seems to be on the up. Roy Hodgson’s team will not, though, be traveling to France in June as a favorite as the national team looks to end its 50-year wait to win a major trophy. Doubts persist over the team’s defense and captain Wayne Rooney’s position in the team, but the presence of in-form strikers Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy is cause for optimism.
WAYNE ROONEY: The striker broke Bobby Charlton’s record England goal haul of 49 in qualifying after assuming the captaincy, but appears a fading force. At 30, Rooney’s influence at Manchester United has been on the wane and he played in central midfield toward the end of the Premier League season. He could play there for England, too, or out wide, with Harry Kane set to start up front and Dele Alli in the No. 10 position.
JOE HART: An assuring presence between the posts at Manchester City, Hart has been England’s first-choice goalkeeper for more than four years now. A superb shot-stopper.
COACH ROY HODGSON: Most coaches would lose their jobs after failing to win a match at a World Cup but Hodgson was allowed to see out his four-year contract. Whether the well-traveled 68-year-old survives in the England dugout after France will depend on the team’s performance.
By Rob Harris
For Russia, it’s all about the home World Cup in 2018, but the European Championship is a great practice run. Russia floundered early in qualifying under Fabio Capello but he was replaced by Leonid Slutsky, who guided the team to an automatic qualifying spot. Some worries persist for Russia, especially regarding its inability to break down determined defenses and resist counterattacks. It’s also an aging team, especially in defense.
IGOR AKINFEEV: The undisputed No. 1 keeper for Russia, Akinfeev knows Slutsky’s approach inside out, having played under him for the last six years at CSKA. However, he is prone to embarrassing errors under pressure, such as letting a shot slip through his fingers against South Korea at the World Cup.
ARTYOM DZYUBA: Dzyuba has blossomed over the last year, pushing veteran forward Alexander Kerzhakov out of the Zenit St. Petersburg and Russia teams and into semi-retirement. He finished with an impressive eight goals from eight games in qualifying.
COACH LEONID SLUTSKY: Slutsky’s appointment in August ended a nine-year run of foreign coaches at the helm of the Russian national team. He still splits his time with club duties at CSKA and faces high expectations from Russian fans, who are looking forward to the World Cup and have fond memories of a run to the 2008 European Championship semifinals under Guus Hiddink.
By James Ellingworth
Slovakia is among five newcomers to the tournament. The team will play in a European Championship for the first time as an independent nation since splitting with Czechoslovakia in 1993. But that doesn’t mean the Slovaks have no experience with major tournaments: At the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, they pulled off a major upset by knocking out defending champion Italy. And as part of Czechoslovakia, the Slovaks played a vital role in a team that won the European Championship in 1976.
MAREK HAMSIK: If there’s an international star on the Slovak team, it’s the Napoli playmaker. In Euro 2016 qualifying, he got a new role up front, becoming the team’s best scorer with five goals in the 10 matches in the campaign. The most important two came in the final qualifier against Luxembourg in a 4-2 victory that sent his country to France.
MARTIN SKRTEL: Skrtel remains a defensive cornerstone for Slovakia. The 31-year-old center back was irreplaceable in his nine qualifiers when he captained the Slovaks. With Skrtel on the field, Slovakia lost just one game, 1-0 to Belarus.
COACH JAN KOZAK: Played 55 times for Czechoslovakia, scoring nine goals, and later led Kosice to the Champions League group stage in the 1997-98 season as the first Slovak club in the top European competition. The 62-year-old Kozak is a master of tactics, surprising many by using Hamsik as a forward. Under Kozak, Slovakia has become an organized side with a decent defense and formidable counterattacking force.
By Karel Janicek
Ryan Giggs. Ian Rush. Mark Hughes. Neville Southall. Just some of the Wales greats who never managed to cap their distinguished careers by playing at a major international tournament. Thanks mainly to the stunning form of Gareth Bale, Wales’ current crop will get the chance. The Welsh reached their first major tournament since the 1958 World Cup by finishing a comfortable second place in a qualifying campaign in which they only lost once and conceded just four goals. It’s a remarkable turnaround for a nation that was languishing in 117th place in the FIFA rankings in 2011.
GARETH BALE: The world’s most expensive footballer has been Wales’ inspiration, either in the unusual position of lone striker or from a central attacking midfield position. Has ups and downs for Real Madrid but rarely has a bad game in the red of Wales, which will be depending on Bale to advance from its group.
ASHLEY WILLIAMS: One of the most under-rated center backs in the Premier League, probably due to his refusal to leave his beloved Swansea to join a bigger club. Captain and organizer of a defense that conceded just four goals in 10 qualifying games - bettered only by Spain, England and Romania.
COACH CHRIS COLEMAN: Deserves credit for heading up the rebuilding of Welsh football after the death of previous coach Gary Speed in November 2011, stamping his own style on the team when critics were calling for his removal, and then finding a system to get the best of Bale. Coleman has turned Wales into a solid international team that could cause a surprise at the championship.
By Steve Douglas
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