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John Brewin profile picture  By John Brewin

Euro 2016, Group B: England vs. Gareth Bale's Wales, plus Russia and Slovakia

Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F

Predicted finish: 1. England, 2. Wales, 3. Slovakia, 4. Russia

England (SPI odds to win group: 52.4 percent)

They won all of their qualifying matches, yet the English football nation is still unconvinced by its team, especially after a disastrous 2014 World Cup. Manager Roy Hodgson will have a young squad -- much changed from two years ago and including 18-year-old Marcus Rashford -- to call upon, with Wayne Rooney the last man standing of a former "Golden Generation", but currently so out of form he may arrive at the finals no longer a first choice. Hodgson would like to keep his job for Russia 2018, but even reaching the quarterfinals may not be enough to save him. FA chairman Greg Dyke saying in Paris that England will win the tournament was either a joke or an extremely rash prediction.

Russia (24.1 percent)

The Russian qualifying campaign veered toward disaster, and it required the removal of coach Fabio Capello to pull them through, with CSKA Moscow coach Leonid Slutsky called in last June to rescue the campaign while continuing to coach at his club. Slutsky presided over victory in the rest of Russia's matches, but faces the same problems Capello openly complained about. A proliferation of foreign players in the Russian Premier League means there is a shallow pool of talent to call upon, and an ageing squad to work with for the World Cup 2018 hosts.

Slovakia (13.9 percent)

Little is expected of Slovakia in only their second international tournament, but very little was expected in their first -- the 2010 World Cup -- and they ended up knocking Italy out and progressing to the Round of 16. Jan Kozak's side went off like a firework in their qualifying campaign by beating Ukraine away from home, stunning Spain and, in all, claiming wins in their first six games. Of more recent concern was the way Slovakia then went three games without even scoring and only confirmed qualification with a nervy win over Luxembourg. But don't write them off. They're tactically versatile, can adapt their shape to suit any situation, and they boast one Marek Hamsik in their ranks.

Wales (9.6 percent)

Having made their first finals tournament since 1958, Chris Coleman's Welsh team are determined to prove that reaching Euro 2016 is not the end of the journey, even if France will be the trip of a lifetime for long-suffering Welsh football fans. The team is set up to serve one man above all, Real Madrid's Gareth Bale, whose deluge of goals and assists fired them through qualifying; his nation will be hoping he can retain that level of inspiration, even if he is bound to be a marked man. Making the second round would be a considerable but wholly possible achievement.

Must-see game: England vs. Wales

It was a fixture Wales boss Chris Coleman wanted to avoid, saying before the draw he was wary of the match becoming a circus, but England versus Wales in Lens on June 16 is now a date set in stone. The Welsh have never beaten England in a competitive international, but have a player in Bale who is head and shoulders in talent terms above the nation he refused to consider playing for when a promising youngster at Southampton.

Can Harry Kane inspire England?

Best individual battle: Skrtel vs. England's strikers

It might be tough to look beyond England versus Wales and the prospect of Bale flying at England centre-backs like Chris Smalling and John Stones, but the chance of Liverpool's Martin Skrtel to play for Slovakia against the attackers of his adopted home also takes the eye. Which English striker he has to mark is the next question. Will it be a revived Rooney, in-form Harry Kane, Rashford the coming force, or Daniel Sturridge, finally fit and firing for France? Slovakia's captain is bound to relish the challenge in his usual physical style.

Group X factor: Can England perform?

England will be rather more confident of escaping this group than they were in Brazil in 2014 after Italy and Uruguay were pulled from that draw, but each opponent presents difficulty, and especially that opening match against the Welsh. A defeat there could make life hard for Hodgson, whose in-game management in Brazil was found badly wanting. The last time England won every European Championship qualifying match was ahead of Euro '88, where they also faced a near neighbour in their opening match, Ireland, and lost 1-0 to a Ray Houghton header, before going on to lose their other two group matches, to Netherlands and the USSR.

John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.


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