England boss Roy Hodgson stressed his side would not underestimate an injury-hit Russia ahead of their Euro 2016 opener in Marseille, which he said “can’t come soon enough” for his young players.
“We are fully aware of what a good team Russia are, we’re aware of their experience and of their quality,” Hodgson told media at Marseille’s Stade Velodrome on Friday.
“We’ve prepared for that. We’ve scouted them, of course, and I’m sure (Russia coach Leonid) Slutsky will have done the same.
“That’s the respect I show other members of my profession. And at this level of football, every team will be very prepared vis-a-vis the opposition.”
England take on a depleted Russia side, who are without injured midfielders Alan Dzagoev and Igor Denisov, desperate to avoid a repeat of the 2014 World Cup when an opening defeat to Italy was followed by another 2-1 reverse to Uruguay.
But in the year of the 50th anniversary of England’s 1966 World Cup triumph, their sole major title, belief is growing that Hodgson’s young side can shock bigger favourites like Germany and Spain.
England fine-tuned their preparations for the tournament with friendly wins over Germany, Turkey, Australia and Portugal.
And Hodgson says his players can’t wait to get the tournament started.
“As far as we’re concerned, tomorrow can’t come soon enough,” he added.
Hodgson remained coy over his possible starting 11, although Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy and Harry Kane of Tottenham are expected to spearhead the attack with Manchester United veteran Wayne Rooney playing in support.
Rooney looked red-faced when he admitted he “can’t remember the time” he played at the imposing Stade Velodrome earlier in his career.
Opening game crucial
But he was unequivocal when it came to underlining the importance of Saturday’s opener.
“We know how important our first game is,” said Rooney, one of several players left gutted by their first-round exit from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
“It cost us two years ago. Now, it’s an exciting time, everyone’s excited for this game. We’re ready for tomorrow night.”
Hodgson has assembled the youngest England squad at a major tournament since the 1958 World Cup, putting faith in youngsters such as striker Marcus Rashford, 18, centre-back Chris Smalling, 25, and 20-year-old Tottenham midfielder Dele Alli.
It will also be the first time Vardy, 29, and Kane, 22, feature at a major finals, creating plenty of pre-match intrigue as to how they will perform on the big stage together.
Hodgson admitted the big step up to “tournament football”, which he said is “different”, will be a challenge.
But the England manager added: “Some of them are relatively inexperienced... but the lack of experience is counteracted by the youth, energy and enthusiasm.
“They’re really keen to do well and are certainly very well prepared for this tournament.”
When asked what his message to the new recruits will be, Rooney said: “Enjoy it.”
And he should know, having broken into the England team as a fresh-faced 17-year-old in 2003.
Although he admitted some words of support won’t go amiss ahead of walking out into a stadium filled with up to 70,000 fans, Rooney believes the ambition and desire of England’s young players will shine through.
“I think you can obviously play without fear, naturally young lads do that. I did it when I broke into the team in 2003,” said Rooney.
“It’s a case of the manager me telling them how good they are. I’ve been around the players the last few weeks and you can see the desire and ambition.
“We’re ready as a group of players, as much as we can be, and this tournament could be a big moment for England and this group of players.”