England and Wales will face off Thursday in one of the most hotly anticipated clashes of the Euro 2016 group stages. And somewhat surprisingly, it appears to be England that’s looking to fend off doubters among fans and analysts.
Following England’s disappointing opening match draw with Russia, in which they surrendered an equalizer in stoppage time, Wales was actually able to jump to the top of the Group B tables. A 2-1 victory over Slovakia made for a strong opening statement for Wales, which came into the tournament looking the part of an underdog but determined to perform at a high level—particularly against its juggernaut neighbor in England.
Now the two sides are finally set to square off against one another, and while Wales is eager to prove itself on the international stage, England is in fairly serious need of a victory and the three points that would come with it. The oddsmakers still have the English favored to win the match, but the conversation has shifted to allow for the possibility of a Welsh upset. Indeed, some tipsters have even begun to point out reasons the Dragons are better than the Three Lions (the former nickname representing Wales and the latter England). In other words, while the smart money remains with the traditional powerhouse, a lot of people are starting to expect a close contest.
As if that didn’t make Thursday’s match interesting enough, this is also going to be an interesting clash between some of the biggest names in the English Premier League and one of the true rising stars of La Liga. As is usually the case, the English team brought to Euro 2016 is packed with prominent EPL players. On the other side, however, Gareth Bale is considered to be far and away the best Welsh player, and he represents La Liga titans and Champions League winners Real Madrid.
So, can the EPL stars carry England past Gareth Bale and the upstart Welsh team?
Well, that remains to be seen, but based on the opening matches it’s Bale who appears to be in the best form. The Real Madrid star has been openly critical of the English national team and seems extremely excited about getting the chance to take them on. And he came out of the gates on fire against Slovakia. He scored just 10 minutes into the match and was a consistent nuisance to the Slovakian defenders, helping to establish Wales as the aggressor in the vital contest.
England’s EPL stars, meanwhile, left something to be desired against Russia. While it’s probably fair to say that England outplayed the Russians for the bulk of the match, only a few of the key players really stood out. Tottenham United’s Eric Dier (a popular pick for a breakout performer for the relatively young English side) scored the Three Lions’ goal and turned in a strong performance, and Wayne Rooney played very well. But Tottenham striker Harry Kane, expected to represent the bulk of the English firepower, was a relative non-factor; Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling did little to distinguish himself; Chelsea defenseman Gary Cahill was booked; and Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere failed to provide much of a spark off the bench. These are some of the players who will need to make serious contributions if England is to defeat Wales and advance from Group B.
Again, the smart money remains with the Three Lions, who have the superior side on paper. But we’ll just have to see what happens on Thursday, and one way or another it looks like it’s going to be a fun one.