England v Russia
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CHANTILLY (France) • Roy Hodgson's determination to exploit an ageing Russia defence has thrust Raheem Sterling into serious contention to start England's opening Group B fixture in Marseille.
The manager is considering an attack-minded selection laced with pace for tonight's match at Stade Velodrome as he seeks to incorporate Harry Kane, Wayne Rooney, Dele Alli, Adam Lallana and Sterling in his line-up, leaving Jamie Vardy to wait for his chance from the bench.
England have never won their opening European Championship game, losing four and drawing four.
The Leicester City striker's main strength could be considered his ability to run in behind defenders and Russia's backline is likely to sit deep and deny him that space.
Sterling and Lallana had impressed Hodgson when coming off the bench in last week's clash against Portugal at Wembley, with the Manchester City winger creating Chris Smalling's winning goal.
Sterling can operate at the tip of a diamond, wide in a front three or even in partnership with Kane, offering England flexibility to change formation while Lallana's inclusion should help the team move the ball sharply through midfield to supply that frontline.
Hodgson is likely to deploy his team in either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation with the Tottenham duo of Eric Dier and Alli operating in central midfield.
The defence will see Gary Cahill partnering Smalling in the middle while Spurs pair Kyle Walker and Danny Rose occupy the full-back positions.
A positive start is crucial. England have never won their opening game at the European Championship, losing four and drawing the other four.
That unwanted record needs to change, said goalkeeper Joe Hart.
"Saturday is our most important game and then we're going to look to set the group up. We're going to look to win every game that comes next and see where that takes us."
Russia have been revived by their coach, Leonid Slutsky, over the past year but arrive in France seriously undermined by the absence of four key performers in the shape of playmaker Alan Dzagoev, winger Denis Cheryshev, veteran left-back Yuri Zhirkov and, as of last weekend, defensive shield Igor Denisov.
The latter tore a thigh muscle during a friendly against Serbia, meaning Slutsky will be without his first-choice midfield.
That will leave a makeshift partnership attempting to protect the central defenders, Vasili Berezutski and Sergei Ignashevich, who have a combined age of 69.
England, on the back of winning all 10 qualifiers, not to mention a rare victory in Germany in a recent friendly, start as favourites.
There were ugly scenes though in Marseille yesterday as English supporters clashed with locals which led to French police in riot gear being called in to break up the brawl.
THE GUARDIAN, THE TIMES OF LONDON, REUTERS