France Here We Come!
What now? After all the broken, faltering campaigns, Wales has qualified for a major championship, but the mystery is whether the reward will justify the 57 years of trying
They have drawn a reasonable group, with Pool B fixtures against Slovakia and Russia separated by the mother of all ties against England. So what are Wales’ prospects? We asked three stars of the past – Craig Bellamy, John Hartson and Ian Rush - to assess how Chris Coleman, Gareth Bale and the rest will do in France.
Wales (FIFA ranking: 24)
While it was witty to label the side “Bales”, it was also a touch unfair on his genuinely top-tier team- mates, including Aaron Ramsey, Ashley Williams and Joe Allen. Indeed, it could be argued that the loss of Williams to the defence would be almost as destabilising to the side as not having Bale. But you only have to look at the qualifying campaign to see why the world’s most expensive player is so valuable to the national side. Of 11 goals in qualifying, he scored seven and made two others. Furthermore, consider the warm-up friendlies with Northern Ireland and Ukraine, in which the Real Madrid forward did not play and, as a consequence, Wales had a much diminished attack. Simply put, their attack is nothing like as functional or effective without him. at is a hardly unique condition – no side is the same without their best player. But the disparity between Bale and the next best striker is alarming. He needs to stay fit. That, of course, is a major requirement for all the key players. It is telling that Wales can field almost an entire side made up of top-flight players, but the depth in the squad is questionable.Their first-choice side can hold their own, the worry is the strength of the reserves.
June 11, Bordeaux.
Slovakia (FIFA ranking: 26)
Slovakia have a physical edge to their play but as they showed against Republic of Ireland in March, they can play fast on the counter attack. In Marek Hamsik, of Napoli, they have a particularly dangerous playmaker, while captain Martin Skrtel, of Liverpool, is a familiar face. They were solid in qualifying, finishing second in Group D with seven wins and a draw in 10 games, including a particularly impressive victory over Spain. They are clearly dangerous but offer the most winnable game in the group.
June 16, Lens.
England (FIFA ranking: 10)
A huge, emotive match. England look formidable on paper with a brilliant generation of young, fast players emerging during a flawless qualification campaign of 10 wins from 10 matches. If Roy Hodgson takes a step away from his conservative instincts, he would be able to eld an extremely aggressive side. That is a big IF. The England weak point is their defence – Hodgson
is undecided on who will fill any of the four backline positions. Given the Wales strength is attacking through Bale, this will be a fascinating match-up as well as a bonkers occasion.
June 20, Toulouse
Russia (FIFA ranking: 23)
A solid team and a hard game. They finished second in their qualification group with six wins and two draws and have decent tournament experience, having qualified for the 2014 World Cup and the previous two European Championships, including a semi-final in 2008. Their squad is unique in that it is almost entirely made up of Russian-based players. A draw would be a good result.
A win and two draws would be a solid return, based on winning a reasonable opening game and then taking confidence into the huge clash with England. e game against Russia will determine everything, but with the top two sides from each of the six groups progressing along with the four best third-placed teams, they could reach the last 16.
The favourites France and Spain are always solid bets, but it is hard to look beyond Germany, the world champions with such a brilliant, balanced squad.
What the experts say...
“I think Wales will get out of the group, I honestly do. But it is very important that they start with a win because there will be a huge amount of attention on the second game against England. The most important thing will be composure – an early red card is no good to anyone.
“But it is a genuinely 50-50 game. That England side has brilliant talent – Harry Kane, Wayne Rooney, Dele Alli, Jamie Vardy, Jack Wilshere. But they still can be a bit inconsistent and Wales will be looking at the England defence because it is not the strongest. Given that we have Gareth Bale, I would think England are worried.
“We all talk about how well they have done to get there after 50 years of not qualifying, but I know Chris Coleman very well and I know he is a winner. That comes across in every conversation. He is not just happy to qualify, he wants to make a mark.”
“I think Wales will get out of the group – it’s not an awful draw by any means. All the talk is about the game against England but the most important one Wales will play is Slovakia in the opener. I think it is very important to get that pressure off straight away, to start with a win.
“You can see Slovakia are a physical side but Wales have the quality to beat them. And they can beat England too - with Bale and Ramsey, they have the quality to beat absolutely anyone.
“They will definitely not be going to make up the numbers. Obviously a lot depends on Bale staying fit – he makes a big difference to the side, we can all see that. But the same goes for Williams, Ramsey, Allen. I think they will get out of the group stage but the important thing is we keep the progress going. The hard part wasn’t qualifying, it is building on it.”
“We’ve got a great bunch of kids who’ve been through something (the death of Gary Speed) that no other team have and it’s really brought them together and made them such a tight-knit group. And whether it’s this tournament or the World Cup, they’re capable of doing something special.
“I was good but I wasn’t world-class but we’ve got a genuinely world class player in Gareth - Messi and Ronaldo are at the top and Gareth leads the pack behind them. Any team looking at us will be really scared of what he can do to them.
“But it’s not just Gareth, we’ve got quality throughout the team - Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, Joe Ledley, Ashley Williams. When I was a player for Wales I’d always check out what teams the opposition played for to get a sense of how good they were and if you look at this team they’ve all played at the highest level in the Premier League which means it’s a good team - there are no weak links.
“It won’t be easy but with the quality we’ve got and the way the group stage works, we’ve got a very good chance to get into the next stage. And once you’re into the knockouts, anything can happen.”