Euro 2020 promises to be completely different to any International tournament that came before it. It is the first UEFA tournament that has been postponed an entire year, which will only elevate excitement levels even more as it approaches closer and closer. It will also be the first without crowds, though the passion and quality on show will undoubtedly ensure that the entertainment synonymous with it remains intact.
One nation that are married with passion are Wales, renowned for their booming, goosebump-inducing national anthem and vociferous support. They were the darlings of EURO 2016 as they trumped all odds and normalities to reach the semi-finals, endearing themselves to the continent and only losing out to eventual winners Portugal.
Now, there are only eight surviving members from the former squad Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, Wayne Hennessey, Ben Davies, Jonny Williams, Danny Ward and record appearance maker Chris Gunter, symbolising a new generation for the Red Dragons.
And whilst old legends have come and gone, new players have taken their place. Chris Coleman’s squad remain etched in Welsh folklore for all eternity and the exciting, fresh on the block crop will be doing everything they can to replicate the efforts of those who propelled the nation of just three million people into worldwide stardom.
Goalkeepers: Wayne Hennessey (Crystal Palace), Daniel Ward (Leicester City), Adam Davies (Stoke City)
Defenders: Connor Roberts (Swansea City), Neco Williams (Liverpool), Chris Gunter (Charlton Athletic), Ethan Ampadu (Chelsea), Joe Rodon (Spurs), Ben Cabango (Swansea City), Chris Mepham (Bournemouth), Tom Lockyer (Luton Town), Ben Davies (Spurs), Rhys Norrington-Davies (Sheffield United)
Midfielders: Joe Allen (Stoke City), Aaron Ramsey (Juventus), Rubin Colwill (Cardiff City), Joe Morrell (Luton Town), Matthew Smith (Manchester City), Dylan Levitt (Manchester United), Jonathan Williams (unattached), Harry Wilson (Liverpool), David Brooks (Bournemouth), Daniel James (Manchester United)
Brennan Johnson- Nottingham Forest
Whilst on loan from Forest at Lincoln City, young Brennan Johnson well and truly ignited League One. Deployed all over the frontline and in midfield, the 20-year old prospect scored 13 and assisted the same number in all competitions, leading to a host of Championship and Premier League clubs taking an interest.
Johnson, despite his best efforts, was unable to guide the Imps to the second tier as they lost in the playoff final to Blackpool, though his performances over the course of the campaign were enough to merit a Wales debut. He has featured in two friendlies against the USA and Mexico and was widely expected to make the final cut.
Will Vaulks- Cardiff City
The Will Vaulks conundrum is one that radiates serious levels of bewilderment amongst Welsh supporters. Vaulks, who currently plays his football for Cardiff, has been a consistent performer all season long, however, he has found himself unable to truly stamp down his mark on the Wales team.
He played in all but four Championship matches for the Bluebirds, yet he was unable to engrave his name on the 26-man sheet over Dylan Levitt, Matthew Smith and Joe Morrell. Levitt and Smith spent chunks of the campaign in the Croatian top flight and League One respectively, whilst Morrell started five games all season with Luton.
It’s easy to see why the decision not to include Vaulks has been married with such frustration.
Who Will They Play?
Wales have been drawn in Group A and will commence their EURO 2020 campaign in Baku on June 12th, where they face Switzerland. Four days later, they will lock horns with Turkey before playing their final group fixture in Rome, a picturesque setting for wholly-hearted battles, against Italy.
On paper, it looks like a tough group. And that’s exactly what it is. Italy are recovering from a spell in the wilderness, failing to appear at the last two International tournaments, though with an exciting new group of talent, the good times of old could well return. Turkey and Switzerland are not to be doubted either, both possessing a host of quality players in their ranks.
Gareth Bale- Real Madrid
“Wales, Golf, Madrid. In that order.”
That’s what the flag read in the crazed aftermath of Wales’ 2-0 home victory over Hungary, which saw them qualify for this summer’s tournament. Players and coaches alike held up the flag in comedic fashion, with none other than Real Madrid star Gareth Bale grinning his big white teeth in the middle of the celebrations.
His status in the Spanish Capital had already been cloudy due to his ongoing disputes with then-Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane, and whilst the events at the Cardiff City Stadium will have only caused further rifts behind the scenes, it made him even more loved by Welsh supporters.
That evening, he was at the centre of the flag-waving controversy and, without a doubt, will be at the centre of whatever Wales do later this month. Although his age has risen, his influence has remained integral and, to the significant advantage of his nation, he is coming off the back of a stellar end to the season with Spurs, ending his loan spell in fine fashion.
It must be said, his North London renaissance began in stalling style, however, he finished the season with 11 league goals- 10 of which came after January- and amassed the best minutes per goal record in the Premier League by scoring every 84 minutes on average. That form will provide a crucial benefit for Robert Page’s side, and what will present even more opportunity to be optimistic is that the 31-year old has affirmed to fixate his eyes solely on Wales amidst a flurry of speculation surrounding his next club destination.
Simply put, Wales need their star player focused.
He has shone since making his Wales debut at the age of 16 he shone brighter than the most esteemed names in European football in 2016 and he is fully expected to shine once again throughout the competition. The captain, the talisman and the player capable of injecting a unique zest of X-Factor into the Welsh side, their aspirations will lean heavily on the winger.
Kieffer Moore- Cardiff City
Remember those ‘fresh on the block’ players I eluded to earlier on in this overview? Well, Kieffer Moore is definitely one of them- even if, at 28, he is no junior.
When Wales were making history five years ago, Moore found himself in a more modest position. He was 23-years old and playing for Forest Green Rovers in the National League. But, by the time EURO 2020 rolls around, he is set to be one of Wales’ key men, and with good reason.
He has worked his way up through the divisions, typifying graft, resilience and a bucket full of goals to get where he is today- a well-regarded International footballer who has just scored 20 league goals for Championship side Cardiff City. His performances for the Bluebirds have been translated to the International stage, with Moore scoring in five of his 15 Welsh caps to date since debuting in May 2019.
Boasting grit, steel and a domineering frame leaving even the most colossal of defenders airborne, Moore and Wales are a perfect match and he will certainly prove a tasking proposition for whoever he is pitted up against.
Aaron Ramsey- Juventus
It really is very touch and go with midfield marvel Aaron Ramsey, who has been blighted by injuries in recent years. As of late, his International contribution has been underlined by spells on the treatment table and he has only featured four times for Wales since November 2018.
He did score both goals in the defining 2-0 victory over Hungary, though, and you would have a hard time contesting the talent he has when fully fit. Ramsey can dictate play from numerous midfield roles, provides a source of goals and implements a sense of creativity, scoring on 16 occasions for his nation.
Meanwhile, back at club level, injuries have hampered his output at Juventus and he has only started 24 league matches in two years. Seemingly out of favour in Turin, reports have been emanating about his long term future with the Old Lady and a successful EURO 2020 campaign could firmly elevate him into the shop window.
Players to keep an eye on:
Rubin Colwill- Cardiff City
Rubin Colwill was a shock inclusion in Robert Page’s 26-man squad, but he has impressed the right people and has enjoyed a real breakthrough season at Cardiff City. He earned his solitary International cap to date on Wednesday evening as he came off the bench in a 3-0 defeat against France. To have made his debut so quickly is an extraordinary feat, given he only debuted for Wales’ U21s back in March, a month after his first Bluebirds bow.
Though as anyone within the Welsh Capital will concur, his quality is there to see. The 19-year old started Cardiff’s final three matches in the number 10 berth and made an evident impression, leaving City supporters in utter awe with his dazzling displays. Already standing above the six foot benchmark and clearly able to handle the rigorous physical elements entailed with high-intensity matches, he can expertly shield the ball and win duels in the middle of the park.
Perhaps, though, his greatest asset is his dribbling. For a player of his stature, it is idiosyncratic and hugely at odds with how he appears on the eye, yet his powerful drives upfield are particularly difficult to defend against because of his speed, trickery and power.
Despite Colwill’s meteoric ascent, it is a tall order to expect him to immediately instate himself in Wales’ starting lineup. Let’s be honest, it probably won’t happen. But, can he still prove impactful? Definitely. And given the manner in which he is held in amongst the Wales camp, the scope could still be there for a few runouts.
The playmaker will be chomping at the bit for the chance to show the world what he, an unknown quantity is truly made of. Regardless of how much action he gets under his belt this summer, the learning curves and experiences that he will receive will no doubt be of an invaluable benefit for years to come.
Ethan Ampadu- Chelsea
Do you ever get that one player who, for whatever reason, takes his performances to new heights when pulling on his national jersey? I think every nation surely has at least one individual who this is applicable to. And Wales’ is Ethan Ampadu.
From debuting for Exeter City at 15 to peripheral loan spells and Premier League relegations, 20-year old Ampadu has boarded a rollercoaster so far in his fledgling career. However, his International showings have never failed to captivate.
He has earned 22 caps to date and has frequently earned plaudits by exhibiting a sense of calmness and composure well beyond his formative years. An intelligent footballer, Ampadu can operate in a variety of positions ranging from centre half to midfield, and in a system that seems to alternate very much, his versatility will be greatly important.
After his loan spell at Sheffield United culminated in a crushing relegation, he has a point to prove. Should he excel for Wales, it would certainly have a big impact on where he struts his stuff next campaign.
My Prediction: Round of 16
Progressing from the group stage alone will be a monumental ask of Robert Page and his comrades given the quality of the nations they will be locking horns with. But, in the likes of David Brooks, Kieffer Moore, Harry Wilson and Gareth Bale, they have many creators, finishers and match winners all capable of coming the forefront.
In the squad, they have the perfect blend between youth and experience, too. You always need fresh, eager bodies around the camp to keep everyone on their toes and having experience and know-how is equally important. Colwill, Ampadu and Neco Williams all make up part of a youthful core, whereas Bale, Ramsey, Gunter and Hennessey have all exceeded 60 Welsh caps across their careers.
It’s hard to get that.
However, the knockout stages are a completely different entity and whilst I predict them to get out of Group A, the nations waiting for them in the round of 16 may draw the curtains on their tournament.
If they were to finish second, they would face one of Belgium (insert Hal Robson-Kanu nostalgia here), Denmark, Russia or even, if probability seeks the exit door, Finland. That would certainly be a tough test.
And, if they finish third by accumulating enough points and goals and probability remains intact, they could face teams such as Belgium, France and Spain. Being a Welshman, I naturally hope they get further. That may not happen this summer, but the signs for the future certainly look rosy in Wales when you consider how much young talent is coming through.
If you enjoyed this article, check out my twitter @Jackpricey_!
Main Image Credits- Embed from Getty Images