England and Wales were paired together in the eagerly anticipated draw for the group stages of Euro 2016. It opens up the mouthwatering resurrection of a traditional Home Nations’ fixture from the past, but this time on French soil. Elsewhere, Northern Ireland were handed the conundrum of how to unsettle the German world champions and a strong Polish team. Their neighbours the Republic of Ireland drew perhaps the toughest group of all, with Italy and Belgium lying in wait for them.
Bale factor to contend with
Roy Hodgson’s men were placed in Group B, with the high-flying Welsh becoming their first known opponents in the draw. They could have had few real complaints though from the remaining two selections, with Russia and Slovakia by no means easy rivals but it could have been far worse.
Yet Roy Hodgson's men will be wary of the Gareth Bale factor. The most expensive player on the planet (£86 million or so) was the main driving force behind the Welshmen's qualification to the finals. His form and fitness may not be exemplary for the Galacticos of Real Madrid, but hand him his national shirt and just watch him perform.
In their first major tournament since 1958, the proud Welsh under Chris Coleman are far from a one-man side though. Resolute in defence in the group stages this campaign, they have a sprinkling of Premier League nous and guile to supplement their figurehead. Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen form a reliable midfield duo, while their captain and defensive rock Ashley Williams has drawn admiring glances from several English clubs in recent seasons.
Republic’s tough test
The Republic will hope that all of the teams take points off each other in Group E. Besides the daunting challenge from the ever-competitive Italians and the top ranked Belgians, they were paired alongside the mercurial Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden. Martin O’Neill will have to delve deep into his box of tricks one suspects to pick up points against such stern opposition.
Ireland face world champions
Northern Ireland will fear no one in Group C but also face a test of their durability. Germany will be group favourites, although Poland tasted success against them in qualifying and Ukraine will also be keen to impress. Ireland will hope that their star poacher Kyle Lafferty prospers yet again against stronger opponents.
In truth there are healthy chances for all of the Home Nations' sides to progress past the first hurdle in France next summer. Qualification has been seemingly eased by not only the top two teams in each group progressing, but also the four best third-placed nations.
In total there are six groups in the first stage of the finals at Euro 2016, with the four teams in each playing a round-robin format.
Best of the rest
Group A looks to have delivered a relatively easy group for tournament hosts France, as Romania and Switzerland would expect to battle for the runners- up spot.
There will be similar expectations of Spain in Group D, with Croatia, Turkey and the Czech Republic battling to progress further.