Written prior to the Euros.
Wales are winning 1-0 against Belgium, the crowd rises in unison and the national anthem reverberates around the Cardiff City stadium. Thirty thousand Welsh bellowing out Land of My Fathers inspires Chris Coleman’s men to victory. This episode, in many ways, symbolises the ethos prevalent in the current Welsh squad: togetherness and support. Wales’ successful qualification campaign was built upon much more than simply Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, but was the product of a palpable team-spirit coupled with a resolution and determination that has been absent for a painfully long time. Propelled by the fervent passion synonymous with the Welsh nation, Bale and co. can, and will, progress from the group-stages.
Wales are covered in the fingerprints of the now, sadly, deceased Gary Speed – he laid the foundations by instilling belief and resolve. Chris Coleman evolved Speed’s groundwork after a miserable World Cup qualification campaign and by implementing a new formation and a slicker style of play, Coleman subtly adapted Speed’s philosophy to suit the abilities of his players. The Wales manager deserves large credit for the discipline he has thrusted into his backline – a defence, led by the exemplary conduct of captain Ashely Williams, that conceded just four goals during qualification. This assured base gives licence for creative sparks Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, and of course Gareth Bale to roam and dictate. When in possession, Coleman’s men look to control the pace of the game in a patient fashion, with the defence initiating attack. However, goals have been hard to come by for the Welsh, scoring just 11 goals on their way to France: Coleman experimented with different styles during the last two friendless against Northern Ireland and Ukraine, but to no avail. If anything will stagnate their progress in France, it is this.
Success invariably breeds expectation, and there will be pressure to progress from Group B. The draw was met with mixed reception, the clash with England inevitably attracting all the attention. Whilst the majority of the Welsh faithful are quietly confident about their nation’s chances against the English, many would have rather avoided them. This is not because they are particularly daunting opposition, but because there is a perceptible feeling that Coleman’s men will invest a damaging amount of energy and attention on this one match, when Slovakia and Russia present more winnable opportunities.
The expectation to advance from the group-stages is not a delusory one; Wales possess the quality necessary to dispatch Slovakia and obtain at least a draw against Russia. It is reasonable to suggest that Wales will win a minimum of four points, meaning the result against England would be fairly unimportant in terms of progression. Yet, in all likelihood, when Welsh and English players leave the pitch in Lens, it will be under the veil of mild contentedness, having secured a point for their respective country.
Ending the group-stage with five points could be enough to top the group, but will most likely mean they finish second. Following this hypothetical scenario, Wales could find themselves playing Iceland in the round of 16. Having confidently dismissed Iceland 3-1 in 2014, one would have to think they would reach the quarter-finals, where they would most probably bow out of the competition to World Cup winners Germany.
If anything differentiates this Welsh side from those in the past, is it that they are hard to beat, losing just once in qualification, away to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Teams that are hard to beat are usually successful in major competitions – allying this with their robust defence and the threat Ramsey and Bale hold going forward makes Wales a dangerous outfit, capable of disturbing the elite in international football.
Chris Coleman took charge when the shadow of Gary Speed’s unfortunate death still lingered, and his first World Cup campaign was underwhelming; however, Coleman has irrevocably turned his side around and his tactical intrusions have been a key cog in Wales’ well-oiled machine.
Undoubtedly Gareth Bale – the Galactico scored 7 of Wales’ 11 goals on the road to France and will terrify opposition defenders with his pace, power and athleticism.
Keep an eye out for
Jonny Williams – the Crystal Palace midfielder’s quick feet and vision have earned him the nickname ‘Joniesta’ in Wales and the twenty two year-old will inject energy and vibrancy into the game, if called upon from the bench.
Took four points off Belgium, beating them at home and drawing away.
Conceded just four goals, two of them embarrassingly coming against minnows Andorra, and Cyprus.
Clean sheets: 7
Average possession: 54%
Pass completion: 88%
Top goal scorer: Gareth Bale, 7.