Saturday’s opener against Slovakia in Bordeaux is the most important fixture in Wales’ footballing history if you ask me. I know everyone is looking to the game against England next week as the ‘big one’, but if Wales don’t get off to a good start at Euro 2016, we could be home before the postcards.
Welsh sides are novices at major competitions, not having qualified for a finals since the 1958 World Cup.
It’s hard to know how we’ll cope with the demands of tournament play – but Greece shocked the football world at the European Championships in 2004 and Wales have to believe they’re in it to win it.
The three opening games come thick and fast, there’s not much recovery time and and you don’t get time to brood over results. That should suit us as we’ve a confident bunch of lads, who will want to show the world that they’re here on merit.
And there’s one player in particular who’ll everyone will be focused on.
Bale us out …
When people think of Welsh football now they think of Gareth Bale. Most Welsh fans talk more about Bale now like they did about Ryan Giggs and the Welsh FA should be using the Real Madrid winger as more of a poster boy for the grassroots of the game.
Make no mistake. Gareth Bale will be as important to Wales in this tournament as Bobby Moore was to England when they won the 1966 World Cup.
He’s a leader on the pitch and relishes playing for his country. Slovakia and the rest of the teams in Group B will be wary of the threat he poses and most importantly the goals he scores. In him, Wales have a real match-winner.
Gareth got seven of Wales’ 11 goals in qualifying and assisted with two more. Two of those goals opened the scoring for the Dragons and that’s what we’ll need from him on Saturday and beyond.
But the more other teams try to man-mark or double-up on Bale, it allows the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Hal Robson-Kanu to strike for the team.
Gareth’s vital for Wales’ chances of getting out of Group B and it was great to see him get 25 minutes game time against Sweden at the weekend – despite the 3-0 defeat.
— Gareth Bale (@GarethBale11) June 5, 2016
Risk and reward …
Chris Coleman has a big decision to make about whether he should risk Crystal Palace’s Joe Ledley on Saturday though – just a month after breaking his leg.
Personally, I wouldn’t. It’s too soon. If Ledley starts against Slovakia and breaks down, then we’ll be forced into a substitution in this vital opening game and possibly a change of tactics. Strategically, we’ll also be a squad member down for the two matches that follow against England (June 16) and Russia (June 20).
Joe’s one of our better players and you know you’ll get 110 per cent from him in every game. You need someone like him in behind the front players, doing a quiet and efficient job to let the likes of Bale, Ramsey and Robson-Kanu get at the opposition.
He mightn’t get the headlines that superstars like Bale do, but you need them in your team doing the heavy lifting for others to shine.
It might be better if we waited with Joe until after the first game. Then we’ll know exactly what we have to do to get to the Round of 16 stages.
Smells like team spirit …
The spirit in the Welsh camp is like the Irish, they’re very together. And the credit for reaching our first Major finals can be traced back along the line. John Toshack brought a lot of kids in during his reign and blooded plenty of young players. Gary Speed did a fantastic job to bring it together before a tragic end and now Chris Coleman has taken it to the next level.
It’s taken us a few years to get there but if we have a good tournament in France we’ll go up the rankings again and that makes life easier for qualifying for the World Cup in 2018.
When Saturday comes …
Wales can win 2-0 on Saturday against Slovakia to get us off to a flyer. I’d fancy Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey to hit the net at anytime to kick-start my Saturday as I’m going to see Rod Stewart at Cardiff Arms Park on Saturday night.
If you think England can take at least six points from the group, we’ll have to aim for four or more to follow them into the Round of 16. Let’s hope three of them come on Saturday.