It will be a momentous occasion when Wales kick off against Slovakia on June 11th, as it will have been almost 58 years since they participated in a major tournament. It has been a frustrating number of years for players and fans alike, but now Wales have made it, and there is a fresh sense of optimism in the air. You cannot talk about Wales without mentioning Gareth Bale, but this team has proved that it is more than that during qualification. They are a side that works hard, play with passion, and have the quality to compete with some of the best sides in the world, as shown by their famous 1-0 win over Belgium, who at the time were ranked as number one in the World.
Wales began qualifying with a 2-1 Bale-inspired win against Andorra, which included a fantastic free kick for the Welsh talisman. Following that, Wales went seven games unbeaten until a loss strangely saw them confirm automatic qualification. Three draws and four wins meant any result apart from a loss against Bosnia would see Wales officially qualify for Euro 2016. However, it was not Wales who determined their qualification themselves, but a Cyprus victory against Israel mean it was mathematically impossible for Israel to qualify. This saw Wales celebrate their place in Euro 2016 despite losing 2-0 to Bosnia & Herzegovina.
Wales defended excellently during qualification and it was a big part of reason why they were able to qualify. Wales played a back five for the majority of qualifying. Three of the five at the back are Premier League proven defenders, and have played at the same clubs together, although Davies has since moved from Swansea to Spurs, but Williams and Taylor play together regularly. As a unit they defend well and in numbers. So well in fact, that only England, Spain and Romania conceded fewer goals than the Welsh in qualifying. On the other hand, out of the teams across Europe that qualified, only Albania scored fewer goals than Wales, which of course is a cause for concern, but there is a very obvious goal threat within the squad.
Wales have the advantage of having a world class player in their ranks. Gareth Bale is one of the world’s finest players. He is a sensational player who has adapted well to life in Spain, and has recently won the Champions League with Real Madrid. Bale is a player who can win games on his own, and is deadly form set pieces.
However, while Bale is one of the main strengths of the squad, he equally uncovers a weakness in the side. Wales would not have made it to France without Bale. His presence is simply game changing, but there is clearly an over-reliance on him. The absence of Bale, through injury or suspension, could see Wales knocked out of their first tournament in over half a century sooner than expected. During qualifications, he scored seven of Wales’ 11 goals and in three friendlies where he was absent, Wales failed to win.
The Welsh also lack a true striker. Sam Vokes can play there, but is not exceptional. This is where much of the over-reliance on Bale stems from. While there are good players on the pitch such as Joe Allen, Jonathan Williams and Robson-Kanu who work hard, Wales lack a number nine who they can look for to hold up play. This could prove to be the downfall of Coleman’s side.
Group B will be a good test for Wales. England, the neighbours, are favourites to top the group with the general consensus being that Wales will finish second. However, Russia and Slovakia should not be underestimated and I really do believe it will be a close finish. Wales start with Slovakia, who recently beat Germany 3-1 in a pre-tournament friendly, and had a solid qualifying campaign. They meet England on June 16th which promises to be a fantastic match and one which neither will want to lose due to points as well as pride. If Wales beat England, they can be confident of qualifying for the Round of 16. Finally, they face Russia which will be a tough final game, but one Wales feel they should win, as they simply have more quality. Fortunately, if the worse should happen and Wales do come third, the expanded tournament means the best third-placed teams will go through too. Everyone is expecting Wales to get through this group, but I anticipate that they will really have to perform if they are to join England in the knockout stages.
Wales 23 man squad:
Goalkeepers: Wayne Hennessey (Crystal Palace), Daniel Ward (Liverpool), Owain Fon Williams (Inverness Caledonian Thistle)
Defenders: Ashley Williams (Swansea), James Chester (West Brom), Ben Davies (Tottenham), James Collins (West Ham), Chris Gunter (Reading), Neil Taylor (Swansea), Jazz Richards (Fulham)
Midfielders: Joe Ledley (Crystal Palace), Joe Allen (Liverpool), David Vaughan (Nottingham Forest), Jonathan Williams (Crystal Palace), David Edwards (Wolves), George Williams (Fulham), Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal), Andy King (Leicester)
Forwards: Gareth Bale (Real Madrid), David Cotterill (Birmingham City), Hal Robson-Kanu (Reading), Simon Church (Aberdeen, on loan from Milton Keynes Dons), Sam Vokes (Burnley)
By Jonathan Wood, TFN Columnist on 03/06/2016 at 20:36