Having avoided any real title contenders in this year’s group stage draw — although the offering of relative minnows in the group stage hasn’t always been gobbled up The Three Lions — England’s opener against Russia is Group B’s heavyweight clash.
Just don’t expect a blockbuster appearance from England’s opponents.
Coach Leonid Slutsky took charge of his country’s side last summer and has had limited opportunity to concentrate on the team having kept up managerial duties with CSKA Moscow.
Any plans he had formulated over the season will have been scotched by recent injuries to veteran midfielder Igor Denisov, creative cog Alan Dzagoev and Real Madrid winger Denis Cheryshev — the equivalent of England losing Eric Dier, Jack Wilshere and Raheem Sterling on the verge of the tournament.
Recent results have not been particularly encouraging for Slutsky, who is managing the team without a salary as a favour to Russia sports minister and Vladimir Putin associate Vitaly Mutko. Russia have managed just one win out of five games in 2016, a 3-0 win over Lithuania, losing three and drawing one.
Not blessed with pace nor youth — Russia have the second-oldest team in the competition — they have nevertheless managed to score in 10 consecutive games and netted a respectable 21 times in qualifying.
Slutsky favours a 4-2-3-1 formation, meaning the biggest selection call will be whether six foot five Artem Dzyuba, who netted eight times throughout the campaign and averages a goal every other game for the national side, or Fyodor Smolov, who scored 20 goals in 29 games for Krasnodar and works well with playmaker Pavel Mamaev, will get the nod up front.
Russia will likely sit back against England, with two holding players protecting the creaking legs of centre-backs Sergey Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutski who together have a combined age of 69, and look to cause damage on the break.
Disciplined Dier will be crucial for England
With Russia aiming to keep six players in between England and Igor Akinfeev at all times and constrict the space between their back four and goalkeeper, it would be tempting to forego deploying Dier at the base of England’s midfield for a more forward-thinking option.
Yet the Tottenham man offers a crucial insurance policy when Russia do spring counter-punches at a vulnerable-looking English defence. As an anchor, Dier can nullify Slutsky’s chosen attacking midfielder — either Mamaev or captain Roman Shirokov — who will look to feed Aleksandr Kokorin and Oleg Shatov on the left and right flanks as well as make late runs into the box themselves from their pull-backs or lay-offs from Artem Dzyuba.
Single out Shatov
Speaking of Shatov, the left winger is as close as Russia get to youth, dynamism and pace and has the potential to give either Nathaniel Clyne or Kyle Walker an international tournament to debut to forget.
The 25-year-old showcased his credentials at elite level with two goals and three assists as club side Zenit St. Petersburg progressed to the last 16 in the Champions League. Clyne or Walker will have to especially mindful if England deploy a diamond in midfield, a formation which will encourage wing-backs to get forward.