A Neighbouring Affair – A Welshman's Perspective
With the draw for the group stages of the European 2016 Championships having taken place last Friday, debut Gryphon writer and Welshman James Felton reviews what prospects his national team have against neighbouring opponents Englandand progressing past their group…
AFTER a frustrating 58-year wait which has seen numerous heartbreaks along the way, Wales have finally qualified for a major Championship, largely thanks to the world-class talent of Real Madrid superstar Gareth Bale. Chris Coleman, the Welsh manager, said prior to Friday’s draw that he wanted his Welsh side to avoid England in the group stage.
Coleman claimed that an early encounter with the Three Lions would involve a media-circus which would distract his players from the two other important fixtures in their group.
However, the reasons for avoiding their British neighbours were more complex than that. England are undoubtedly a good side, having won every single group game in qualifying. There are also a plethora of young stars currently developing, with the likes of Ross Barkley, Harry Kane or John Stones. Certainly, there are questions about who Roy Hodgson should pick, especially if Wayne Rooney stays off form and Daniel Sturridge and Jack Wilshere have another injured-ridden end to the season. England, though, seem to have a genuine strength and depth in the squad and with many bookmakers labelling them as fourth favourites, they have the potential to go far in the tournament. Perhaps Portugal, Cristiano Ronaldo aside, would have been a better fixture as the spine of their team is far inferior compared to England and Ronaldo has struggled to perform in international tournaments. But, just like their rugby counterparts, Wales will give their all against England and whilst they are underdogs, will go into the game with the belief that they can achieve something, however unlikely.
Having seen Slovakia dismantle Spain at the beginning of the qualifying process, they will not be as easy as it may sound. Granted, Spain were still suffering from the World Cup hangover, and in the reverse fixture beat them comfortably 2-0, but it was still an impressive performance. Marek Hamsik was their talisman that day and is certainly a player to watch. The Napoli star brings a lot of quality to their side and Wales’s best chance of winning, alongside Bale playing at his best, is to stifle the Slovakian attacking midfielder, because he can cause some serious damage. Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel will no doubt be trying his best to stop Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, although as we have seen throughout the years in the Premier League, the Slovakian captain also possesses a danger from corners, both in defending and attacking them. What’s more, with the Welsh Rugby team facing New Zealand in their opening test on the morning before their game, it could be another memorable day for Welsh sport.
There is only one word for Welsh fans when it comes to Russia: revenge. Back in 2003, Wales faced them in a play-off match in order to qualify for Euro 2004. Wales drew 0-0 away from home, but could not capitalise on this when they took the game back to the Millennium stadium, where they devastatingly lost 1-0. The match did not go without its controversy as it later transpired that Russia’s Igor Titov, who played 59 minutes of the decisive second leg, tested positive for taking drugs. UEFA, however, rejected Wales’ appeal to instate them into the competition instead of Russia. Moreover, they are not the team that they once were. Indeed, they finished third in their World Cup group in 2014, amassing only two points, and just about qualified directly in preparation for this tournament. The Russians finished just two points ahead of Sweden, whilst they finished a massive eight points behind suprise group winners Austria. Unlike previous years, which has seen them export Andrey Arhsavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko to the Premier League, Russia, in their last squad, comprised of only one single player who doesn’t play in their own domestic league: Real Madrid’s Denis Cheryshev. The league is now on a long winter break, lasting until the end of February. Whether or not this has a negative impact on the fitness of the players remains to be seen, as it certainly is one reason why sides like Zenit struggle in Champions League knock-out rounds.
All three games, for different reasons, will be tough for Wales. However, the Welsh people are, on the whole, content with the draw and will certainly be feeling a lot happier than the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland fans who have Italy, Belgium and Sweden, and Germany, Ukraine and Poland respectively. There is a real sense that we can finish in that second spot behind England in the group, but this will not solely be down to Gareth Bale or Aaron Ramsey. Chris Coleman has given the players the confidence and, crucially, made sure that they are full of team-spirit which on many occasions has been what has helped them over the line.
Featured image: The Mirror