Benefiting from an expanded tournament, Wales have qualified for the European Championships for the first time in their history.
There is always an air of regret when it comes to Wales and major football tournaments. Ian Rush, Mark Hughes, Gary Speed, Ryan Giggs; none of them experienced a World Cup or a European Championships clad in their national kit. Wales have produced more than their fair share of stars, but the major international occasions have, for the last 58 years, escaped them. Until now.
They will, for the first time ever, attend the European championships, having qualified automatically from their group, courtesy of a second-placed finish. As it happens, and by no coincidence, the current squad might also be the most talented in their history.
Wales were expected to qualify for the tournament, despite never having done so before, when they were placed in a group that, at first glance, had only one dangerous rival, Belgium. Bosnia and Herzegovina were lingering threateningly, but Chris Coleman’s team were confident they could handle anything Edin Dzeko and co. could pose. Having a bonafide superstar can do that; give you confidence, and in Gareth Bale, the Welsh have one of the worlds elite players. Bale shone during qualifying, hoisting his team on his shoulders multiple times, scoring seven of their 11 goals. Six wins, three draws and a solitary loss proved enough to snatch second place, and automatic qualification.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing, despite the final outcome. All three teams that finished below Wales in their qualifying group scored more goals than the Welsh and, even though Wales has a deeper, more talented squad than ever before, a lot of dependence was loaded onto Bale. Chris Coleman has crafted a formidable defence – only England, Spain and Romania conceded fewer goals than Wales throughout qualifying – but his attacking plan seemed, at times, limited to simply “get the ball to Gareth and hope”. Bale was certainly up to the task, netting vital winning goals against Andorra, Belgium and Cyprus, but, even with Aaron Ramsay, Joe Allen and Hal Robson-Kanu in support, it must have felt like he was doing it all on his own.
Wales have never before appeared at a European Championships, having narrowly missed out in 2004. The 2008 and 2012 campaigns all ended in bitter failure, as poor performances against unfavoured opposition condemned the Welsh to once again watch from the unbearable comfort of their living rooms. The last major tournament that Wales appeared at was the 1958 World Cup, a tournament many of the parents of the current squad aren’t old enough to remember, so there is precious little for the Welsh to draw from, when it comes to past experience at this level. What Coleman can rely on, though, is the vast, top-tier club experience a lot of his stars enjoy; a spine of Wayne Hennessey, Ashley Williams, Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsay, and of course Bale, can give Welsh fans hope that the team won’t crumble in the limelight.
Obviously, in Bale, Wales have one of the tournaments most ferocious attacking talents. From a central position, Bale is equipped to wreak havoc against any defence, a supreme bundle of unrivaled pace, devastating shooting and spatial nous. With Hal Robson-Kanu ahead of him, and Ramsay flitting around him, Bale will be surrounded by space-making passing options. A neat turn, a quick one-two, an acceleration into space, and any team will be quivering. This isn’t even to mention Bale’s supplementary skills; he is also a powerful header of the ball, and is a potent threat from free kicks.
As previously said, Wales defence was also one of the best in qualifying, and with Ashley Williams at its heart, will be robust and organised. A three-man back line – that may morph into a five-man defence when out of possession – with Joe Allen roving dutifully ahead of it, will give Bale and the rest of the attack every chance to win games.
In a way, Wales’ biggest strength can also hinder them. Similar to the plight of Cristiano Ronaldo-era Portugal, teams with dominant superstars can often falter because of an over-reliance on said superstar. The team should be built around Bale, certainly, but they should not be arranged in total deference to him; Ramsay especially can be a superb force on his own. Additionally, Wales’ lack of an elite out-and-out striker is another contributing factor to their low-scoring qualifying campaign, with Robson-Kanu more of a natural wide man. Sam Vokes, fresh off a fine 16-goal season with soon-to-be top flight Burnley, might find himself playing a crucial role in Wales’ Euro fate.
Prediction – Round of 16 exit
Wales share a group with Russia, Slovakia and old foes England. Not the hardest group, by any means, and so the Welsh will fancy their chances against all of these opponents. The teams that finish first and second in their groups move onto the knockout rounds, and if Bale can find a way to grab this tournament by the scruff of the neck, Wales can make this maiden Euros one to remember.