Every tournament, England enters with hope. That hope is justified in 2016, but the Three Lions will face a difficult road, including a familiar superstar, in the group stages.
Joining England in Group B are Russia, Slovakia and Wales, with the latter of which will be participating in its first major tournament since 1958. Leading the charge is Real Madrid winger and international superstar Gareth Bale, who is joined by Premier League regulars Ashley Williams, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen in making up one of the nation’s best ever teams.
Slovakia enters with some talent of their own, including Marek Hamsik and Martin Skrtel, while Russia will rely on a heavily-domestic roster in what will serve as a tune-up for the 2018 World Cup. Both sides have shown the ability to go toe-to-toe with some of Europe’s heavy-hitters, making either side confident of making a run to the knockout stages.
All roads will likely have to go through England, who boast a young squad that featured plenty of talent. Premier League stars like Harry Kane, Wayne Rooney and Dele Alli headline the Three Lions squad, a unit which will expect a deep run in this summer’s tournament.
Here is a closer look at all four teams in Group B:
Saturday- Wales vs. Slovakia (ESPN) Noon
Saturday- England vs. Russia (ESPN), 3 p.m.
June 15- Russia vs. Slovakia (ESPN), 9 a.m.
June 16- England vs. Wales (ESPN), 9 a.m.
June 20- Slovakia vs. England (ESPN) 3 p.m.
June 20- Wales vs. Russia (ESPN2), 3 p.m.
PLAYERS TO WATCH– Harry Kane, Wayne Rooney, Chris Smalling, Jamie Vardy
NAME TO LEARN– Marcus Rashford. If you aren’t familiar with the Manchester United prodigy, you ought to be soon. After emerging as a star with the Red Devils throughout the Premier League campaign, Rashford played himself onto the roster by becoming the youngest Englishman to score on his international debut against Australia in a pre-Euro friendly. Rashford is for real, and has shown that he has the ability to play with men heading into his first senior tournament.
GOALKEEPERS: Fraser Forster (Southampton), Joe Hart (Manchester City), Tom Heaton (Burnley)
DEFENDERS: Ryan Betrand (Southampton), Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Nathaniel Clyne (Liverpool), Danny Rose (Tottenham), Chris Smalling (Manchester United), John Stones (Everton), Kyle Walker (Tottenham)
MIDFIELDERS: Dele Alli (Tottenham), Ross Barkley (Everton), Eric Dier (Tottenham), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Adam Lallana (Liverpool), James Milner (Liverpool), Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), Jack Wilshere (Arsenal).
FORWARDS: Harry Kane (Tottenham), Marcus Rashford (Manchester United), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool), Jamie Vardy (Leicester)
OUTLOOK– England always tends to enter major tournaments with unbridled optimism, only to be let down in the worst of ways. This year’s tournament once again provides reasons for hope, but also plenty of youth that appears set to lead the next generation. Players like Dele Alli and Harry Kane look set to lead the Three Lions in both the future and the present, and England does have a legitimate chance to make a run in this summer’s tournament.
PLAYERS TO WATCH– Artyom Dyzuba, Igor Akinfeev, Oleg Shatov, Pavel Mamaev
NAME TO LEARN-Aleksandr Golovin. Just 19-years-old, Golovin appears to be the next big thing in Russian soccer. The young attacking midfielder made 15 appearances for CSKA Moscow this season and has scored two goals in his three international appearance.
GOALKEEPERS: Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow), Guilherme (Lokomotiv Moscow), Yuri Lodygin (Zenit St. Petersburg)
DEFENDERS: Alexei Berezutsky (CSKA Moscow), Vasily Berezutsky (CSKA Moscow), Sergei Ignashevich (CSKA Moscow), Dmitry Kombarov (Spartak Moscow), Roman Neustadter (Schalke), Georgy Shchennikov (CSKA Moscow), Roman Shishkin (Lokomotiv Moscow), Igor Smolnikov (Zenit St Petersburg)
MIDFIELDERS: Igor Denisov (Dynamo Moscow), Denis Glushakov (Spartak Moscow), Alexander Golovin (CSKA Moscow), Oleg Ivanov (Terek Grozny), Pavel Mamaev (Krasnodar), Alexander Samedov (Lokomotiv Moscow), Oleg Shatov (Zenit St Petersburg), Roman Shirokov (CSKA Moscow), Dmitri Torbinski (Krasnodar)
FORWARDS: Artyom Dzyuba (Zenit St Petersburg), Alexander Kokorin (Zenit St Petersburg), Fyodor Smolov (Krasnodar)
OUTLOOK– Riding a roster featuring 22 players from the domestic league, Russia will hope an experienced squad can lead them to Euro glory. With just one player under 25, this roster could look very similar to the one that takes the field on home soil for the 2018 World Cup, making this summer’s tournament a major trial run for the Russian team.
PLAYERS TO WATCH– Marek Hamsik, Marten Skrtel, Juraj Kucka, Adam Nemec
NAME TO LEARN– Robert Mak. The PAOK midfielder was crucial in qualifying for the Slovakians, and is likely to be relied upon again once the tournament hits. Alongside a star in Marek Hamsik, Mak has shown the ability to provide goals at the international level, with seven finishes in 15 appearances, including two in qualifying.
GOALKEEPERS: Matúš Kozáčik (Viktoria Plzeň), Ján Mucha (Slovan Bratislava), Ján Novota (Rapid Wien).
DEFENDERS: Peter Pekarík (Hertha Berlin), Milan Škriniar (Sampdoria), Martin Škrtel (Liverpool), Norbert Gyömbér (Roma), Ján Ďurica (Lokomotiv Moskva), Kornel Saláta (Slovan Bratislava), Tomáš Hubočan (Dinamo Moskva), Dušan Švento (Köln).
MIDFIELDERS: Marek Hamšík (Napoli), Juraj Kucka (AC Milan), Miroslav Stoch (Bursaspor), Vladimír Weiss (Al-Gharafa), Róbert Mak (PAOK), Patrik Hrošovský (Viktoria Plzeň), Ján Greguš (Jablonec), Viktor Pečovský (Žilina), Stanislav Šesták (Ferencváros), Ondrej Duda (Legia Warszawa).
FORWARDS: Michal Ďuriš (Viktoria Plzeň), Adam Nemec (Willem II).
OUTLOOK– For the first time since becoming an independent nation since 1993, the Slovakians are part of a major tournament. Without much star power outside of Hamsik and Skrtel, Slovakia will have a tough task ahead of them, but a qualifying win over Spain will give them some confidence heading to France.
PLAYERS TO WATCH– Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, Ashley Williams
NAME TO LEARN– Hal Robson-Kanu. The Reading striker has only played 25 Premier League matches, but is a veteran of English soccer. While players like Bale, Allen and Ramsey drift in behind him, Robson-Kanu will be tasked with holding onto the ball and holding his own from the forward position. He may not be the biggest name or the most talented, but any contributions Robson-Kanu makes will be gravy for a Wales team loaded with midfield talent.
GOALKEEPERS: Wayne Hennessey (Crystal Palace), Danny Ward (Liverpool), Owain Fon Williams (Inverness).
DEFENDERS: Ben Davies (Tottenham), Neil Taylor (Swansea), Chris Gunter (Reading), Ashley Williams (Swansea), James Chester (West Brom), Ashley Richards (Fulham), James Collins (West Ham).
MIDFIELDERS: Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal), Joe Ledley (Crystal Palace), David Vaughan (Nottingham Forest), Joe Allen (Liverpool), David Cotterill (Birmingham), Jonathan Williams (Crystal Palace), George Williams (Fulham), Andy King (Leicester), Dave Edwards (Wolves).
FORWARDS: Gareth Bale (Real Madrid), Hal Robson-Kanu (Reading), Sam Vokes (Burnley), Simon Church (Nottingham Forest).
OUTLOOK– Wales will almost certainly go as far as Bale takes them. Players like Ramsey, Allen, Ledley and Williams are all quality players, but if Wales are to make a run at the Euros, Bale will need to be the superstar many view him as. If not, Wales is likely doomed for an early exit from a difficult group.