Wales have never been likely candidates to join the world’s footballing elite, and how could they be?
With a significantly smaller player pool to choose from than their rivals England, and most other countries, the fact that the team qualified for this year’s European Championship is phenomenal and great for football in general.
Wales, under Chris Coleman have exceeded expectations and qualified from a group that included one of FIFA’s leading teams – Belgium. In fact with a win at home and a draw away, the Welsh held their own impressively against the No.2 ranked side and finished second in the qualifying round, losing only once.
A huge part of their play is centred around the talismanic Gareth Bale. Although not a possession football side, Coleman has made Wales hard to beat and quick on the counter attack.
But it’s Bale’s dribbling, his running at defences, his goals and the trickery on the ball that he produces with seeming ease is pivotal to all that Wales do in and around the opponents penalty box.
Against Sweden, the Welsh were undone and were pushed aside by a stronger side. As their first and last warm-up game, the damage this result has done is unthinkable. From riding into the tournament on a high and hoping to outsmart the rival teams with their virtual anonymity, they now go into the competition after a sound kicking that has possibly left some doubts in their minds. Even Coleman chose his words carefully rather than attack his team on the eve of the finals.
Gareth Bale didn’t appear until the 64th minute that night after an eight month absence. After a gruelling Champions League final, Coleman decided to rest the Real Madrid man, while the Wales team that night wasn’t the strongest available, with or without Bale.
The 26-year-old gives so much attacking nous to the Welsh and once he entered the fray, the Dragons looked a threat going forward and for the first time in the game they started to attack with a bit of purpose. But they seem lost without him.
In qualifying, Wales scored just eleven goals, with Bale netting nine of them. Coleman generally starts with Hal Robson-Kanu in front of Ramsey and Bale. Sam Vokes, Simon Church and Robson-Kanu do all have differing strengths and can certainly help Bale or Ramsey deliver the incisive blows, but Coleman must know that they are unlikely to conjure many match-winning moments themselves.
“People always ask me about Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey and I understand that,” said Coleman. “But, from my point of view, Sam Vokes and Simon Church never fail to be here and are playing very well.”
The Welsh aren’t blessed with strength and depth, and are over reliant on certain players – in particular Ramsay and Bale. Many of the squad have had to learn fast after being fast-tracked to the senior national ranks and players like Ramsay already have a vast number of caps at tender ages.
This Wales side certainly contains decent players who generally have had fine seasons. James Collins for West Ham, Simon Church for Aberdeen and Ashley Williams, who is a very good defender, being just three. It is obvious that they will need to keep Bale fit, but generally without him, Wales are not the same side and do not have the players to bring in to deputise.
Wales could surprise many this summer and with the new format, where the four best-ranked third placed teams from the group stages could progress to the last 16, it is possible for them to go further than anyone imagined.
As Chris Coleman said though: “We have to be careful as well what message we send to everyone else in the squad. Everyone wants to talks about Bale and Rambo, I understand that, they are great players, but I promise we didn’t qualify because of two players. They were of course a huge help but the others players who have been involved in the last two years have been magnificent. When they have been with us, in the challenge with us, we couldn’t ask for more.”
Wales without Bale? Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that…