By Tom Williams | AFP News –7 June 2016
Ensconced in a luxury hotel in Chantilly, England are grappling with a diamond that does not shine ahead of their Euro 2016 opener against Russia.
Led by Wayne Rooney, England are Group B favourites against Wales, Russia and Slovakia, but with time running out before the tournament starts, manager Roy Hodgson is still buffing dull spots in his team’s tactics.
His midfield diamond failed to sparkle in last week’s 1-0 win over Portugal and he was criticised by former England manager Glenn Hoddle for asking strikers Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy to adopt wide roles.
“The idea of playing two up front is so that there is movement off each other, with Rooney, as number 10, coming in from behind,” Hoddle wrote in the Mail on Sunday.
“You want Vardy running in one channel, maybe Kane dropping in short, Rooney picking off movement on the back of their runs and coming in from deeper. That never happened.”
Chris Smalling’s late goal earned England a third consecutive win in their warm-up games, but there was no disguising the lacklustre show.
Hodgson has also raised eyebrows by tasking Kane with set-piece responsibilities, despite him topping the Premier League scoring chart with 25 goals for Tottenham Hotspur last season.
Hodgson defended the move by explaining that Kane simply has the best dead-ball delivery in the team.
– Slovakia on scalp hunt –
He also gave the tactical talk short shrift, telling journalists: “Formations don’t win you games. Players win you games.”
Hodgson’s Wales counterpart, Chris Coleman, would dearly love for the tactics board to be his only source of anxiety.
Since securing qualification for a first major tournament in 58 years, Wales have gone four games without victory, culminating in Sunday’s 3-0 defeat at the hands of Sweden.
While the return of talisman Gareth Bale as a second-half substitute in that game provided reason for optimism, Coleman has banished talk of the June 16 showdown in Lens with rival neighbours England.
“That game doesn’t exist, the England game. It doesn’t mean anything,” he told reporters in Stockholm. “The only thing that means anything is the Slovakia game.
“We’re playing against a team who’ve been on a hell of a good run. They’ve won in Germany, they’ve just had a draw with Northern Ireland, who are on a great run.
“It’s all about that first game.”
Slovakia could only draw 0-0 at home to Northern Ireland on Saturday, but Marek Hamsik and his team-mates stunned world champions Germany 3-1 in Augsburg on their previous outing. They have form when it comes to claiming major scalps.
At the 2010 World Cup they eliminated defending champions Italy in the group phase and four years later, Jan Kozak’s side sparked their successful bid to qualify for Euro 2016 with an unforgettable 2-1 defeat of defending champions Spain.
Kozak was in bullish mood after the draw with Northern Ireland as he declared that his players would not be overawed by the prospect of facing Real Madrid star Bale.
“Of course Gareth Bale is considered one of the best players in the world,” he said.
“But I won’t be asking for his autograph. I can tell you that by the end of our match, he will be asking for mine.”
Russia have been hurt by injuries to several key players including Yuri Zhirkov, Denis Cheryshev, Oleg Kuzmin and, most damagingly of all, playmaker Alan Dzagoev.
Midfielder Igor Denisov was ruled out due to a hamstring injury on Monday, opening the door for Zenit St Petersburg’s Artur Yusupov, who happened to be staying in the same hotel as the squad in Monaco.
“I was planning to fly back to Moscow today,” Yusupov told a press conference in Paris.
“I didn’t even have my football boots with me and none of my kit. I had to borrow from (team-mate) Roman Neustadter.”