Football Features

“He’s still world class” — Five things learned as Gareth Bale puts Wales on the cusp of Euro 2020 qualification

By Ben Green

“He’s still world class” — Five things learned as Gareth Bale puts Wales on the cusp of qualification

Published: 22:00, 16 June 2021

Italy have booked their ticket to the round-of-16 in Euro 2020 after easing past Switzerland, while Wales have all but confirmed their place in the knockouts with a more nerve-jangling triumph over Turkey in Group A.

Wales set the tone for the evening’s action, producing a resounding 2-0 win over Turkey in Baku, with goals from Aaron Ramsey and Connor Roberts sparing the blushes of Gareth Bale, who missed a penalty on the hour mark. The redeeming factor for the Real Madrid man was that he provided both assists on the night.

Italy then followed suit, confirming their place in the knockouts with a routine 3-0 victory over Switzerland, in which Manuel Locatelli netted a first ever career brace, Ciro Immobile added to his tally, and Roberto Mancini’s men furthered their status as one of the competition’s most exciting teams.

So, what did we learn from matchday two in Group A?

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1. “Gareth Bale is still world class”

A lot can be said of Bale’s season leading up to Euro 2020, but ‘a resounding success’ would not be the slogan of choice. Some Spurs fans may argue that he was more Hyde than Jekyll as he took considerable time to get back in the groove, but a return of 16 goals in 34 games certainly paints a convincing picture. Scratch beneath the surface and he finished 2020/21 with the highest goals per 90 minutes ratio in the top flight (1.07).

The metrics are, of course, just one side of the coin, but they illustrate a wider picture and underpin just how lethal Bale can be on his day which, according to fellow countryman Robbie Savage (during his commentary for BBC) is still “world class”. He failed to end his two-year scoring drought for Wales tonight, but what he lacked in a cut-throat precision in front of goal, he made up for with laser-guided passing and dead-eyed distribution.

The out-of-favour Madridista could have had a hat-trick of assists in the first half were Ramsey a little more composed in front of Ugurcan Cakir, but this was Bale at his best. The weight of pass, vision and audacity to execute defence-splitting passes left the Turkish defence — which included Caglar Soyuncu — all at sea, while his run and lay off to Roberts at the death not only put the gloss on a convincing display, but was a moment of pure inspiration.

His playmaker exploits have culminated in the inside forward registering five big chances at Euro 2020 already. For context, the most created at Euro 2016 was five, and funnily enough, that was provided by Ramsey. It would almost feel unjust to discuss Bale’s penalty miss, such was his influence on this contest, not to mention winning the foul for the spot-kick itself, but it ultimately proved a minor blemish on an otherwise near-flawless display. Are you watching Carlo Ancelotti?

2. “He reminds me of Craig Bellamy”

Bale was not the only wide-midfielder to turn heads in Azerbaijan. Manchester United speedster Dan James combined breakneck pace and cunning to run riot on the flank, producing a performance reminiscent of Craig Bellamy in his heyday according to 43-capped Wales international Neil Taylor.

During BBC’s half-time analysis of the opening 45 minutes, Taylor dissected the performance of James, who really came to the fore after a somewhat subdued performance in Wales’ curtain-raiser against Switzerland. Tonight he was the catalyst for counters, running hither and thither down the touchline and proving an absolute menace for the Turkish full-backs.

When Wales needed respite and relief, James would buccaneer down the channel and get his teammates up the turf; when Wales were out of shape, James tapped into his second wind and got back in position with eye-watering speed; when Wales needed an out ball, James was ever-willing to show for possession and receive a pass. His insatiable appetite to drive at the heart of Turkey’s defence underpinned the energy and spirit which permeated through Rob Page’s Dragons.

The 23-year-old may not be a consistent first-teamer at Manchester United, but what he perhaps lacks in the creative virtuosity of Bruno Fernandes, he more than makes up for with his muck-and-nettles approach, stamina and endurance, often making Zeki Celik and Umut Meras look leaden-footed, as though walking though treacle. A performance of the highest quality.


Next up at Euro 2020 (Thursday and Friday):

  • Thursday: Ukraine vs North Macedonia (2pm, UK time), Denmark vs Belgium (5pm, UK time), Netherlands vs Austria (8pm, UK time).
  • Friday: Sweden vs Slovakia (2pm, UK time), Croatia vs Czech Republic (5pm, UK time), England vs Scotland (8pm, UK time).
  • Belgium are looking to register three consecutive victories against Denmark for the first time in their history.
  • The last seven matches between the Netherlands and Austria have produced 30 goals, an average of 4.3 per game.
  • This will be the first meeting between Sweden and Slovakia at a major tournament (European Championship + World Cup).
  • This will be the 115th match between England and Scotland, and their 100th in a competitive fixture.

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3. Italy are back!

The ill-fated reign of Gian Piero Ventura now appears but a mere speck in Roberto Mancini’s wing-mirror. Italy, who failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, are slowly but surely exorcising the demons of that tumultuous period as they look frighteningly good under the former Manchester City manager.

It felt almost wrong taking to Russia 2018 without Gli Azzurri, royalty on football’s international circuit, but they have not taken long to remind everyone of the qualities the nation possesses, and these opening two games have offered fans an indication that they are certainly not here to make up the numbers.

The midfield trident of Manuel Locatelli, Jorginho and Nicolo Barella is arguably the most balanced at the tournament, while Lorenzo Insigne brings a talismanic improvisation and unpredictability to the frontline, Ciro Immobile brings an instinctive eye for goal, and Gianluigi Donnarumma brings an impervious presence between the sticks (Italy have not conceded in 10 consecutive games now).

Against Switzerland, Italy were in the box seat for majority of the game, pinging passes with an almost dismissive arrogance, and linking up fluidly. It was rhythmic and brilliant to watch. Gli Azzurri look back to their best, and could certainly cause an upset this summer.

4. Locatelli: From pass master to goal-getter

You would be forgiven for thinking the tempo-setter in Italy’s squad was Jorginho, a player who performs the role with distinction for Chelsea, but Manuel Locatelli is arguably the more revered metronome, having registered a staggering 2,749 passes in Serie A this season, the most of any player.

So, the 23-year-old was certainly not expected to be the man turned to for goals in the final third. His role, alongside Jorginho, has been to form a luxurious axis in the centre of the pitch, connect the dots and keep the pace of the game in Italy’s favour. Tonight, though, he abandoned his attacking inhibitions.

After Giorgio Chiellini’s opener was ruled out upon consultation with VAR, Locatelli seized the initiative and took matters into his own hands. Capping off a wonderful Italy move, Locatelli bombed forward and tapped in from Domenico Berardi’s well-timed pass.

Having opened his account in March’s World Cup qualifiers, Locatelli has added another gold star to his international CV, while also becoming the youngest goalscorer at Euro 2020 so far. Drafted in to offer an elite passing presence, he defied that script to bag a delectable brace, with his second putting the seal on an impressive showing.

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5. Toothless Turkey

Turkey entered the tournament with high hopes: they are the last team to beat France in a competitive game of international football — June 2019 — while they conceded the joint-fewest goals in Euro 2020 qualifying. And yet, they have been utterly devoid of the elite quality their talent pool should offer.

A centre-back partnership of Caglar Soyuncu and Merih Demiral is a manager’s dream, while Hakan Calhanoglu created the most chances of any player across Europe’s top five leagues in 2020/21 (98) — ahead of Bruno Fernandes and Thomas Muller — and Burak Yilmaz inspired Lille to Ligue 1 title glory.

However, Senol Gunes has been unable to find a winning formula, with Turkey looking disjointed and cumbersome. Against Italy they were played off the park, while in the showdown with Wales they scarcely threatened, save for a few set-piece opportunities. It means they have conceded five and scored zero.

The Calhanoglu-Yilmaz link-up was suppose to take the tournament by storm, but they have looked like strangers on the pitch, and now Turkey must pull something out of the bag when they tee off for their closing match against Switzerland, or risk crashing out with a whimper.