Group B could easily become one of the more prickly affairs at Euro 2016 this summer. There is no love lost between Russia and Slovakia – who meet in Lille on June 15 – while the meeting of neighbours England and Wales a day later in Lens is one of the standout clashes of the group stages.
Both games promise plenty but, while match-day two is likely to have a massive bearing on who progresses from this section, the moods of the various camps following the opening games is going to be a key factor going into these clashes.
On paper at least, England are clear favourites to boss this section. Roy Hodgson’s team have moved on from the failure of the World Cup in Brazil two years ago and came through qualifying winning all ten games – just the sixth team to do so in European qualifying history.
They have also claimed the scalp of world champions Germany and tournament hosts France in recent friendlies.
Somewhat unusually, England are seemingly destined to present themselves as an attacking force in France.
Hodgson has selected five strikers, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy the most in-form of them, and in midfield Dele Alli is a player to watch on this grand stage.
For Hodgson, the biggest question marks surround the issue of accommodating his captain, Wayne Rooney, and whether or not his defence is suitably reliable against the best teams in Europe.
Wales meanwhile will end their long, long wait for tournament football – 58 years of hurt comes to an end on June 11 when they face Slovakia in Bordeaux.
Get 7/1 Enhanced odds on England to win Group BChris Coleman’s side were remarkably efficient in qualifying, accruing 21 points from just 11 goals scored.
Wales are mean at the back – just four goals conceded in ten qualifiers –and in Gareth Bale they boast a lethal attacking weapon that will scare any opponent and demand respect.
Like Wales, Slovakia are going to rely heavily on the creative talent of Marek Hamsik.
The Napoli playmaker scored six times during qualifying as Jan Kozak’s side earned their Euro 2016 spot via a six-game winning sequence to start their campaign, which included ending Spain’s 36-game unbeaten qualifier sequence.
The Russians by contrast recovered from a nightmare start that saw Fabio Capello sacked and replaced by Leonid Slutski before they won their final four games to seal qualification, although they will be without one of their star men, Alan Dzagoev, due to injury.
England’s depth of attacking talent sets them apart, but all three group-stage opponents are capable of punishing the Three Lions defensive lapses, should they come.
It would be a major surprise should Hodgson’s team fail to finish first or second in this group. Russia will hope that their experience of tournament football can give them an edge on Wales and Slovakia but overall this group looks to be very evenly balanced.
The opening set of fixtures is likely to dictate the mood and – by association – prospects of these four nations at Euro 2016.
The only thing that seems certain is that there will be some fiery encounters during the Group B journey.
Get 6/1 Enhanced odds on Wales to qualify to knock-out stageGroup B Fixtures:
Saturday, June 11 – Wales v Slovakia (17:00) Stade de Bordeaux, Bordeaux
Saturday, June 11 – England v Russia (20:00) Stade Velodrome, Marseille
Wednesday, June 15 – Russia v Slovakia (14:00) Stade Pierre Mauroy, Lille
Thursday, June 16 – England v Wales (14:00) Stade Bollaert-Delelis, Lens
Monday, June 20 – Russia v Wales (20:00) Stadium de Toulouse, Toulouse
Monday, June 20 – Slovakia v England (20:00) Stade Geoffroy Guichard, Saint-Etienne