Euro 2016 is already underway but for us in England tonight’s game against Russia is where the tournament really starts.
I’m in two minds about how far England can go this time. On one hand I don’t think the squad is good enough to get to the final and win the competition. But on the other, the competition is as wide open as any. As far as a winner goes, it’s very tough to call.
You could make a case for several countries to lift the trophy but at the same time you could point out flaws in all of them. In terms of a prediction, I’d probably go with that old cliche – never bet against the Germans. They would be my pick, or possibly France in their own back yard.
For England, a run to the last four or even the quarter-finals would be a good building block for a pretty young squad. When the draw for the groups was made there seemed to be this view that England had got an easy ride but I’m not convinced. Russia, Wales and Slovakia – to me they are all useful, dangerous sides who Roy Hodgson shouldn’t under-estimate. Knowing him, I doubt he will. It’s not his style.
The main debate surrounding this England squad is centring on Wayne Rooney and to be honest, I can’t understand the clamour for him to be left out of the starting line-up.
Clearly there’s been a bit of a struggle to find his best position but it’s pretty obvious to me. I’d play him in behind a front two of Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy, in the role where he’ll do most damage.
Even if Hodgson decides to do away with the diamond midfield, I’d still look to play him in support of whoever’s up front. Don’t forget that he scored plenty of goals in qualifying.
Rooney’s a classy player and I almost get the feeling that he’s going out of fashion. It’s more fashionable to think about Kane, Vardy or Dele Alli – fresh, exciting talent – and more fashionable to think of Rooney as yesterday’s man. Needless to say, there’s going to come a day quite soon when his England days are done but for now we need to make the most of his experience.
If that means building the team in a way which plays to his strengths then so be it.
I also think that England’s defence is better than the limited credit it’s getting. I hear a lot of people say that we’re not good enough at the back to go all the way but we didn’t lose a game in qualifying. I like both of the full-backs and I think they’ll be key to our results. Chris Smalling was probably Manchester United’s player of the year and his improvement has been quite noticeable. We’re not talking about world-class footballers here but I don’t think the team are a soft touch either.
Tonight’s game against Russia is key. Get a good start and a win at the first time of asking and the pressure on the group games lifts massively. England can’t really afford to go into a meeting with Wales feeling desperate for a point. Okay, a lot of sides will progress from the group stages and it’s almost harder to go out than it is to go through but these games do dictate a lot going forward.
Top the group and in theory the knockout matches become a little easier to begin with. Scrape through and England are going to land a tough game in the next round.
As I said, I’m not convinced that we’re good enough to make the final. When you look at some of the other squads, they’ve got an extra element of class that will probably carry them further. But what we need to see – and what I think the country is owed – is a decent run; a push into the latter stages. It feels like a long time since that happened.
If England go out in the group or immediately after that, Hodgson’s going to be on very thin ice. We can all debate exactly how good his players are but we’d probably all agree that they’re better than that. It’s very important to set the right tone with a win over Russia tonight.