Ronaldo, France and Germany - England face nightmare path to final after blowing Group B

England Euro 2016
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Failure to beat both Russia and Slovakia has cost the Three Lions dearly as they lose the projected advantages they could have enjoyed had they won the group


To follow the path of least resistance would have been the preference for England and Roy Hodgson. They could have been looking at a relatively straightforward knockout phase with Spain the only world class team between them and the final had they beaten Slovakia here in Saint-Etienne. It was all in their own hands. Instead, they've somehow contrived to finish second in what should have been a very agreeable Group B behind a Wales side they beat earlier.

They are the only team to fail to beat Russia and that late Vasily Berezutski goal looks more costly in hindsight. Their huge, morale-boosting, unifying win over British rivals Wales counts for nothing.

It all means that Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal could be waiting for them at the last 16 stage rather than Albania - the team currently projected to meet Wales. And not only that, should they eliminate Portugal - who put them out of Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006 - then it will probably be France in the quarter-finals and not Hungary or Belgium. After that, it will probably be Germany. So much for making your own luck. 

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This is a good England team, by no means a great one, and they were undone by a key deficiency here. England were set a puzzle to solve by Slovakia. They were asked to play through them and score. They couldn't. Slovakia played an anti-pressing game, dropping deep into their own territory when England got the ball. From there, the team in red couldn't do much damage. It was duck and cover football from Slovakia and they got their reward. By virtue of their own win over Russia, they will qualify for the knockouts for the first time in their history.

England had 27 attempts against Slovakia but only five of them were on target. Matus Kozacik in goal was equal to every one of them. He was busiest in the first half when he made terrific saves from Jamie Vardy and Adam Lallana in particular. At that stage it looked like it would be a matter of time before England scored. Lallana and Eric Dier were on top form with the Tottenham Hotspur man rapidly becoming his nation's most important player.

There were, though, no goals for Vardy or the other striker picked to start the game - Daniel Sturridge. Hodgson gambled by making six changes to the starting line-up that beat Wales with Harry Kane dropped after two scoreless performances. Sturridge and Vardy fared little better. Indeed, by the time the second half was in full swing, Hodgson had reeled back on as many of those substitutions as he could with Kane, the ineffectual Wayne Rooney and Dele Alli coming into the mix.

Alli could have scored with his first touch off a Henderson cross but found Martin Skrtel retreating to block. What the Liverpool defender and his colleagues Tomas Hubocan and Jan Durica lack in technical ability, they make up for in being able to get in front of fast moving shots. That attribute was most important on a night that England were peppering the goal.

There was no guile or craft  to England's play in the final third. Most of their runs came out wide from Nathaniel Clyne or Ryan Bertrand. Slovakia were content to filter England out wide and prevent chances from there. Most of the time it worked.

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Hodgson has questions to answer; a side that scored three goals in two games was changed and the one that played instead could not score any. Any kind of goal would have had England facing a plum draw in the knockouts. They will instead look around their half of the tank and see preying sharks all around.

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