Wales enter their second European Championship looking to repeat the halcyon days of their debut appearance in the competition five years ago.
The Dragons defied expectations in the 2016 edition of Uefa’s blue-ribbon international tournament, reaching the semi-finals at the first attempt.
Spearheaded by the breakneck pace of Gareth Bale, the creative verve of Aaron Ramsey, the tempo-setting exploits of Joe Allen, and an infectious camaraderie cultivated by Chris Coleman, Wales stunned all in France.
They have since taken that post-Euro 2016 momentum and ushered in the new decade with another landmark, reaching successive tournaments and only their second-ever appearance at a European Championship.
The job now falls on the relatively inexperienced Robert Page to navigate the ship and sow the seeds of another successful campaign in the continental competition, looking to pick up where Coleman left off and mastermind another meteoric rise.
It’s a slightly ominous Group A awaiting the nation, with Italy back from the brink and looking majestic under Roberto Mancini, Turkey boasting quality in Lille hero Burak Yilmaz, Milan playmaker Hakan Calhanoglu and Caglar Soyuncu, while Switzerland are never an easy fixture.
However, there is not a single nation immune from fault. Every side entering Euro 2020 has a ‘thermal exhaust port’, a chink in the armour that can be exploited. Page’s task will be to identify that weakness and prepare his players to take full advantage of any opposition frailties.
Wales Euro 2020 group odds (via William Hill)
- Wales to finish first in Group A: 7/1
- Wales to finish second in Group A: 4/1
- Wales to finish third in Group A: 3/1
- Wales to finish fourth in Group A: 11/10
(Odds in this article are correct at the time of writing. 18+ only, BeGambleAware.org)
Starting with the big wigs of the group: Italy. A team among the aristocracy of international football, Roberto Mancini’s current Gli Azzurri incarnation are righting the wrongs of Gian Piero Ventura’s ill-fated reign, which saw Italy fail to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
With ravenous goal-getters Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti, midfield elite Marco Verratti, Nicolo Barella, Manuel Locatelli and Jorginho, as well as centre-back stars Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Alessandro Bastoni (and Gianluigi Donnarumma in goal), the weaknesses are few and far between.
However, there is a discernible Achilles heel. The pineapple on Mancini’s Napoletana is the full-back area. Italy has a rich lineage of world-class full-backs, ranging from World Cup-winning teammates Antonio Cabrini and Claudio Gentile, to more recent heroes Paolo Maldini and Gianluca Zambrotta.
But Mancini’s current options leave a lot to be desired compared to past representatives of Gli Azzurri, with the former Man City boss recently starting Chelsea outcast Emerson and Atalanta centre-back Rafael Toloi on the flanks for the nation’s World Cup qualifiers.
Mancini can also call upon Roma’s Leonardo Spinazzola and PSG’s Alessandro Florenzi, but this will be a key area where the pace of Gareth Bale and Daniel James can really come to the fore. If there is one area where Wales are blessed with elite quality, it’s on the flanks, and that is how they will look to hurt Italy.
?️ vs. Ireland
?️ vs. Finland
?️ vs. Belgium
?️ vs. Czech Republic
Gareth Bale has now provided an assist in each of his last four games for Wales. pic.twitter.com/OqtYIEsI6b
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 30, 2021
Switzerland, meanwhile, represent a different proposition. The engine room is manned with distinction by Atalanta workhorse Remo Freuler and Arsenal stalwart Granit Xhaka, while defensively Vladimir Petkovic can call upon the quality of Manuel Akanji, Fabian Schar, Ricardo Rodriguez and Nico Elvedi.
Going forward, however, Rossocrociati lack the panache of Italy. Haris Seferovic, Breel Embolo and Xherdan Shaqiri can all excel on their day, but a lack of consistency has often held them back at club level, and if Wales set up with discipline and organisation, they could nullify the threat of that temperamental trident.
Page has willing runners to call upon, players prepared to put in the hard yards and go out on their shields, so if the system is rigid, with the likes of Ethan Ampadu mopping up and snapping at heels, Ben Davies closing down with relish and Allen recycling possession, they could seriously frustrate an attack that often blows hot and cold.
Relevant odds with William Hill…
- Wales win vs Switzerland: 12/5
- Wales win vs Italy: 13/2
- Wales win vs Turkey: 12/5
Finally, Turkey are perhaps the wildcard in the pack. They have proven able to blitz past teams through sheer attacking quality, as demonstrated by their 3-3 draw with Germany last autumn and 4-2 win over Netherlands in World Cup qualifying, but they also won just one game of their Nations League Group B3 campaign and were relegated.
It may be a case of who turns up against Wales: Jekyll or Hyde? But, the unpredictability (or inconsistency) of Turkey is such that Wales can overcome this test if they’re self-assured and tactically disciplined, allowing the individual qualities of Bale and Co. to shine through.