UEFA EURO 2016: WALES | SPORT FEATURE
Conor Knight takes a look at Wales’ chances in their first major international competition in over 50 years: the UEFA European Championship.
Now that the domestic season has finished and the silverware has all been engraved and won, there’s still one more competition left: UEFA Euro 2016. The coveted European prize has returned from its four-year dormancy, and this year it is closer than ever, with the tournament held across France. Given the extent of talent in the French ranks and the amount of home support at their disposal, the hosts enter the competition as favourites alongside World Cup winners Germany. This will not disparage Wales as they venture into their inaugural Euros, on the back of an impressive qualification campaign that saw them lose only once, including a victory over Belgium. In their road to qualification for the Euros, Wales were commended for their disciplined, defensive ethos that was forged on a 5-3-2 formation, most notably keeping seven clean sheets in ten games. Captain of both Swansea and the national side, Ashley Williams is integral to this formidable defence. With Ramsey returning from injury and Sam Vokes scoring fifteen goals in a Championship winning campaign, Coleman will be confident with the form of all departments of his team heading into France this summer. Given that Wales progress through the group stages this overall form will be vital, with them most likely facing Portugal/Austria should they finish second, or probably Spain if they are the superior third placed team.
Indeed, the squad selection for the Euros comes with little surprise given their success in qualification. However, significant question mark looms over the fitness of Joe Ledley though, which will be a notable loss in their condensed three-man midfield. Ruled out of Crystal Palace’s final league game of the season with a leg injury, Ledley will be in the minds of many Wales supporters. Should it be serious, there is little concern with his replacement, after Andy King just completed a historic title winning season with Leicester. Despite his bit part role with the club, the midfielder showcased his abilities when given the opportunity, finishing the last game he started with a goal and an assist. Though he need not any assurance, Gareth Bale has also proved his worth, evolving into a talisman for Real Madrid in the final stages of their domestic campaign with a number of winning goals, having found the net twenty times and assisting in eleven in all competitions. Having overcome the injury issues which marred the middle of his season, Bale has returned stronger than ever with a hunger for goals, victory and silverware.
Wales’ first test of the tournament is on Saturday 11th June in which they journey to the Nouveau Stade Bordeaux to face Slovakia. A must win game if Wales want to keep their Euros hopes alive, the presence of veteran Liverpool defender Martin Škrtel will prove a significant task for the Welsh attack to break down. At the other end of the pitch, Marek Hamšik will most likely feature; the Napoli attacking midfielder has found the net 6 times and assisted 11 in Serie A, with another five goals in Slovakia’s Euro 2016 qualification bid. Hamšik is key to Slovakia’s attack and will thus need to be targeted by the Welsh midfield if they hope to contain his firepower. With a victory over Spain on their journey to qualification, Slovakia’s international credentials are impressive and will take some beating.
It felt almost fitting when Wales were drawn in Group B with England. Taking place on Thursday 16th June, you can be sure Wales will stop to a standstill at the prospect of overcoming England once more on the international stage. Following a tumultuous Rugby World Cup for England that saw Wales take sporting bragging rights for the next few months, the Anglo-Welsh rivalry has been reignited, with Wales once more taking the position of underdogs (though arguably more so this time). Winning all ten of their qualifying games, and only conceding three goals in the process, England will be entering the competition confident of advancing to at least the knockout stages of the tournament, having failing to do so in the 2014 World Cup. With a fresh-faced attack to those that failed to record a single victory in Brazil, England have been commended for their youth-orientated selection. Both Alli and Kane have established themselves as potent attackers for Tottenham this season in a title pursuit that eventually petered out but was impressive nonetheless. However, it will be the presence of underdogs Jamie Vardy and Drinkwater that would have raised eyebrows a year ago. However, a season later and both have Premier League Winner’s medals, with the former bagging 24 goals in the process. Despite the plethora of attacking English talent at Hodgson’s disposal, it will be their moderate defensive options that will only slightly spur on Wales. But if rugby has taught us anything, the Wales vs. England matches are never predictable.
As Group B’s favourites to qualify behind England, Wales’ final game before the knockout stages is key. Kicking off at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard on Monday 10th June, this is arguably the defining game of the group; the result will most likely determine the fate of Wales’ Euro hopes. Though all conjecture, given both teams lose to England and win against Slovakia, this final fixture will be a head-to-head to determine who joins the English to the next stage. A nasty injury to Real Madrid’s Denis Cheryshev partially dilutes Russia’s potency, but Artem Dzyuba, who scored eight goals in eight games to see his national side reach the Euros, is continuing to fire on all cylinders with fourteen goals for Zenit St. Petersberg. With Russia hosting the 2018 World Cup, and thus automatically granted qualification, the European stage becomes even more significant to Wales, with it being their first major European tournament for fifty-seven years.
Rest of the Groups
Elsewhere in the tournament, France feature in Group A, and are favourites to win with Switzerland to finish beside them. Northern Ireland remain hopeful within their tough group, with Poland, Ukraine and World champions Germany all vying for a knock out spot. Current European Cup holders Spain will look to retain their title in Group D, though their capitulating form in recent years will provide a light for Croatia, Turkey and Czech Republic. Arguably the group of death, comprising of Belgium, Italy, Sweden and Ireland, Group E’s tantalising batch of fixtures feature global stars of the game: Eden Hazard, Gianluigi Buffon, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robbie Keane. Largely a two horse race between Austria and Portugal, Group F will be a test for Hungary and Iceland.
Judging the competition overall, though Germany and Belgium seem attractive bets for the Euro 2016 trophy, ultimately a French victory seems most likely. With Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and N’Golo Kanté all in great form, especially as two of the three winning their respective domestic titles, it seems only an inevitability that this form will translate into European glory. However, should Wales achieve second place in their group and gain a favourable knockout fixture, we could, very optimistically and hesitantly, begin to dream – together stronger.
Wales v Slovakia, Sat 11 June; Wales v England, Thurs 16 June; Wales v Russia, Mon 20 June. Info: www.uefa.com