England - Russia Preview: Who will come out on top as Group B kicks off?

England take on Russia on Saturday as the two teams start their Euro 2016 campaigns.

England - Russia Preview: Who will come out on top as Group B kicks off?
Image credit: VAVEL

England and Russia go head to head this weekend, as they aim to get their respective Euro 2016 campaigns off to a winning start.

The game will be played at the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille.

The build up

After a perfect qualification process, fans in England started to dream of the possibilities that lie ahead this summer. That optimism around the country was increased as Roy Hodgson's men went on to beat world champions Germany in a friendly back in March.

Recent victories against Turkey and Australia showed that the Three Lions meant business, however, a sluggish and uninspiring 1-0 win against Portugal threw into question whether Hodgson knew what his best XI was. The positioning of Wayne Rooney was a key talking point. 

Russia, on the other hand, have had a rotten build up to this year's tournament. The two pre-tournament friendlies that the Russians have been involved in have ended in a defeat and draw. The inability to keep out late goals from their opponents has cost them dearly. 

To add to this, Alan Dzagoev, Yuri Zhirkov and Igor Denisov are three key players who will not be in France this year, which leaves Russia in trouble.

Leonid Slutsky came into the job when Russia were on the verge of failing to qualify for the Euros, due to Fabio Capello's disastrous reign. The 45-year-old CSKA Moscow manager steadied the ship, won his first four games in charge and guided his country to qualification. If Russia are going to be successful at this year's competition they are going to have to re-find that type of form. 

Will Vardy and Rooney start together? | Image source: The Sun
Will Vardy and Rooney start together? | Image source: The Sun

The ones to watch

As always, every fan in the country had their say when Hodgson's 23-man squad was announced. The exclusion of players such as Danny Drinkwater and Andros Townsend caused fans to wonder whether the England boss had chosen to right team for the tournament. 

However, Hodgson made the bold choice to pick Manchester United's rising star Marcus Rashford. The 18-year-old burst on to the scene this season after he was handed his chance by Louis Van Gaal. The youngster got off the mark for his country when he scored against Australia last month. Whether he will play a large amount of football at this year's competition is yet to be seen, but if he does get the nod, he is most definitely one player to watch.

All Russian eyes would have been on Dzagoev if the midfielder was fit for this tournament. His absence means the leadership is likely to come from veteran Igor Akinfeev. The CSKA Moscow shot-stopper has played for his country for the last 12 years, making 86 appearances in that time. 

His experience in goal will be vital due to the ageing defence that will be playing in front of him. If Russia are to escape Group B, they will need Akinfeev to be at his best. Another player that is likely to catch the eye is 20-year-old Aleksandr Golovin.

The history

Since the break up of the USSR, Russia and England have only faced each other twice, back in 2007. Both sides have one win each to their name after those fixtures. England eased to a 3-0 win in the first tie, as Michael Owen (2) and Rio Ferdinand got on the scoresheet. A month later, Russia picked up a 2-1 victory when former Tottenham Hotspur striker Roman Pavlyuchenko netted twice. 

In terms of recent tournament history, Russia have not faired well. Since reaching the Euro 2008 semi final, they have either failed to qualify for the big tournaments or failed to escape the group stage. 

England were in the same group as Russia for the Euro 2008 qualifiers and famously did not qualify under Steve McClaren. Former Russia boss Capello then guided England to a last-16 exit in 2010 before handing over the reigns to Hodgson. The journeyman suffered a humiliating 2014 World Cup campaign and is lucky to have kept his job.

A poor tournament this summer may lead to the end of Hodgson's reign in charge of the national team.