ENGLAND and Wales are back in action tonight and the knockout stages are within touching distance.
Roy Hodgson is preparing to ring the changes as the English face Slovakia in St Etienne (the scene of their exit from France ’98), while Chris Coleman has to rouse his Welsh players to go again against Russia in Toulouse. It promises to be an exciting evening.
Can Hodgson really afford to be such a gambler?
THE news coming out of the England camp yesterday was that manager Roy Hodgson is preparing to make up to six alterations for tonight’s clash with Slovakia. For a man usually depicted as cautious, it is an incredible change of approach. It’s especially the case given that England have not actually qualified for the next round yet – although it would take a freakish set of results for that to happen given the extended 24-team format.
And it’s not as if the first two matches have been won convincingly – a 1-1 draw against Russia and a 2-1 injury-time victory over Wales, with lots of question marks remaining over how the team should line up. So, what happens if players like Jack Wilshere, Daniel Sturridge and Jamie Vardy come in tonight, it all clicks and Slovakia are swept aside? Would captain Wayne Rooney regain his place for the next round? Tournament football is about momentum. England have it after the euphoria of Sturridge’s winner against the Welsh, but they are in danger of squandering it because of one of the ills of modern football – squad rotation. England are there to try to win Euro 2016, not to make sure every player has had a game.
Player of the Day: Jack Wilshere
IT is obvious that Roy Hodgson regards Jack Wilshere as a special talent. Not many players would have made the England squad for a major tournament on the back of one start and two substitute appearances during the entire domestic season. But the Arsenal midfielder warranted special treatment. He was given two starts in the warm-up games, but has so far only made a brief appearance from the bench in France, as a replacement for Wayne Rooney against the Russians.
Tonight, it looks like he will be given his head from the off in just his second start at a major tournament. After years of promise halted by a succession of injuries, we are still waiting for Wilshere to really take off. His ability has never been in question and the game in St Etienne is the perfect opportunity for him to bring something England have lacked so far.
The best players in France thus far have been Spain’s Andres Iniesta and Luka Modric of Croatia, classic ball-players who have set the tempo for their sides. Wilshere’s introduction could give England that same dimension, a player who can see the clever pass, surge forward from midfield and link up with his attackers. If it comes off, then Wilshere would be impossible to leave out later on.
Can Wales keep the party going?
THE knockout stages were in touching distance for Wales as they entered injury-time of the Battle of Britain in Lens. Then up popped Daniel Sturridge and those dreams were shattered, albeit temporarily. The challenge for Chris Coleman over the last few days has been to lift the spirits of the players and convince them they are still close to making history. A draw against Russia in Toulouse will almost certainly be enough but the Welsh should be thinking bigger than that. If they finish second in Group B, they would face the runners-up from Group F, one of Hungary, Portugal, Iceland or Austria and what an opportunity that would be. Winning the group would line them up against one of the third-placed qualifiers, and present an even better opportunity of reaching the last eight.
The message to the Welsh class of 2016 should be to be brave and bold – qualify in the grand manner. In Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, Wales have two gifted forward thinking players, so let’s see them on the front foot putting pressure on a creaking Russian defence, rather than putting in a heroic shift going backwards. Not only would it be great to see the Welsh qualify, but frankly watching the Russians receive a real beating on the pitch would feel like some form of sweet justice.
French of the Day
50 ans de souffrance (50 years of hurt)
8pm: Russia vs Wales (Stadium Municipal, Toulouse, ITV)
8pm: Slovakia vs England (Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, ITV)