By Mark Trevelyan
ST ETIENNE, France (Reuters) – England put Slovakia on the rack for long spells but were forced to settle for a 0-0 draw on Monday, frustrating coach Roy Hodgson as his side reached the knockout stages despite slipping behind Wales in their group at Euro 2016.
England’s failure to beat Slovakia, who came third in Group B, and should also go through to the last 16, means they will now face the runners-up in Group F instead of a potentially easier tie against one of the third-placed teams.
“It’s certainly very disappointing that once again we’ve had all of the play and a lot of opportunities in and around the Slovakia box and we’ve not been able to take one,” Hodgson told a news conference.
“I can’t deny that’s both frustrating and disappointing. It’s something we’ll have to continue to work on, but I believe it will come because I think we have players in the team who can score goals and who will score goals.”
England have five points, behind Wales, who beat Russia 3-0, on six, and will play their last 16 tie in Nice on June 27.
Slovakia, on four points, must wait to see if they go through as one of the four best third-placed teams.
“England have very good attacking quality,” said goalkeeper Matus Kozacik, who was man of the match.
“We needed at least one point and managed to get it, and I hope with the four points we’ll manage to get through.”
England made six changes and their new-look lineup created several chances, with Jamie Vardy, Adam Lallana, Nathaniel Clyne and substitute Deli Alli all coming close.
But despite the roar of their fans, who vastly outnumbered Slovakia’s in the St Etienne stadium known locally as the cauldron, they could not find a way through the Slovak defense.
Hodgson took a major gamble by revamping the side that beat Wales 2-1 last Thursday, including resting captain Wayne Rooney, and saw his team make a bright start.
Vardy posed a constant threat in the first half and full back Clyne, replacing Kyle Walker, regularly troubled the Slovak defense with probing runs down the right wing.
Vardy fired just over the bar in the opening minutes, and then flicked on a header that set up a chance for strike partner Daniel Sturridge.
Soon after, Vardy outsprinted fullback Martin Skrtel, running onto a long ball inside the penalty area but firing his shot straight at keeper Kozacik.
In one of England’s best moves, a pass from Clyne set up Lallana for a stinging shot that forced a diving two-handed save from Kozacik.
For Slovakia, Viktor Pecovsky shot harmlessly over the bar, and Marek Hamsik wriggled clear of centre-half Gary Cahill and fired across the face of goal.
With Wales leading Russia at halftime, England came out for the second half knowing they needed to score in their quest to finish top.
They had one anxious moment in particular when a mix-up between goalkeeper Joe Hart and defender Chris Smalling nearly let in Robert Mak, but otherwise they continued to put Slovakia under pressure.
Clyne’s shot from a narrow angle bounced off the keeper’s shoulder and Alli, with his first touch after coming off the bench, forced a goal line clearance from Skrtel.
With Prince William, among the crowd, grimacing and holding his head at a series of near-misses, England kept pushing for a goal but to no avail.
Hodgson now faces a potentially tougher route in the competition with France, Germany and Italy all in the same half of the draw.
He also has a selection dilemma, especially after Clyne had an outstanding match in place of Walker, who excelled against Russia and Wales. Three games into the tournament, the England boss may still be searching for his best team.
(Reporting by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Ken Ferris and John Irish)