Roy Hodgson has admitted that he has a selection headache going into England’s opening match of Euro 2016 against Russia on Saturday, but claimed it is one he is happy to have. There has been much discussion about England’s starting lineup for the match at Marseille’s Stade Velodrome, particularly with the recent emergence of strikers Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy to put the place of captain Wayne Rooney under threat.
While as usual not giving anything away regarding his team selection on the eve of the game, Hodgson attempted to focus on the positives of his predicament.
“I think there is definitely a selection headache in terms of so many good players who could quite easily command a place in the team,” he said in his pre-match press conference. "I don’t know if I’m alone in that situation. I think quite a few teams in the tournament have a strong squad and their managers too will have selection headaches, but I’m pleased with the one that I have.”
Kane and Vardy both excelled and scored without Rooney in friendly wins in recent months over Germany and Turkey. But Hodgson brought Rooney back into the fold for England’s final warm-up game against Portugal, when the Manchester United man started between Kane and Vardy. That experiment hardly proved a success, yet reports suggest that Rooney, England’s record goalscorer, will start against Russia, with Vardy, who scored 24 Premier League goals last season for champions Leicester City, set to drop out.
Whoever does start, England will be keen to get off to a better start than at the World Cup two years ago. Then a 2-1 defeat to Italy was followed by a loss by the same scoreline against Uruguay to dump Hodgson’s side out of competition. Even though four of the six third-placed teams will go through to the group stage in this expanded European Championship of 24 teams, Rooney has stressed the importance of the first match.
“We know how important the first game is – it cost us two years ago," the 30-year-old said. “It’s important to get off to a good start – we know that and we’ve talked about that as a group of players. It’s an exciting time and you can feel the buzz around the place. Everyone’s excited for this game so it’s important that we take our performance levels into this game in order to get off to a good start.”
There has been talk of Rooney even occupying a central midfield role, as he did for Manchester United at the climax of last season. And Russia coach Leonid Slutsky has suggested that Rooney may now be better off in a deeper position, comparing him to Brazilian forward Vagner Love, now at Monaco.
“He has changed his style,” Slutsky, who is sharing his responsibilities with his country with coaching CSKA Moscow, said. “He is not the player that he was.
"It reminds me of Vagner Love when he came to CSKA Moscow in 2004. Back then, he was a pure striker because of his speed, his runs, and he scored lots of goals. He was brilliant in the front line. Now Vagner Love is very different. He organizes, he plays passes. It would be unfair to say that Rooney is worse than before, but he is very different.”
Slutsky has plenty of his own problems with which to concern himself. The 45-year-old has lost two key players to injury in recent days, in Igor Denisov and Alan Dzagoev, who scored three goals in Euro 2012. Slutsky only took over the Russia team last August, replacing Fabio Capello after the team made a poor start to its qualifying campaign. And he had an immediate impact, guiding Russia to four straight victories to finish behind Austria in its group. However, Russia has only ever made it past the group stage once as an independent nation, at Euro 2008.
Prediction: While Russia came good at the end of qualifying, its results since then have not been good, winning just won of its five games and losing three. The absence of Denisov and Dzagoev is a real blow, particularly the latter, who adds a much-needed spark to an otherwise uninspiring team. Plenty of questions still hang over England and Hodgson’s decisions could undermine what is an encouraging young group of players. However, against a mediocre Russia side, which is particularly plodding at the back, England should do enough to secure an opening win.
Predicted Score: England 2-1 Russia
Kickoff Time: 3 p.m. EDT
TV Channel: ESPN
Live Stream: Watch ESPN