Wales‘ Euro 2020 campaign can only be defined as a rollercoaster of emotion, taking supporters on a trip of frustration, anxiety, tension and euphoria as the Dragons reached the round of 16.
There, after progressing from a challenging group containing Italy, Switzerland and Turkey, they faced Denmark. It was a daunting encounter, one that conclusively proved to be the hurdle in which they would tumble at.
Kasper Dolberg, Joakim Maehle and Martin Braithwaite compounded misery onto Welsh supporters in a routine 4-0 victory for Denmark, who were full of confidence following their 4-1 win over Russia last week. And whilst nothing can be taken away from the daring Danes, Wales very much looked the victims of self-implosion in Amsterdam, making a string of errors to allow their opponents to well and truly capitalise.
Yet, as anyone who watched Wales in action over the course of the tournament will narrate, the Denmark defeat wasn’t the epitome of their quality as a unit. So often, they showcased admirable unity, coated with an interminable passion that even the best of nations fail to match. And they have firepower, too. Plenty of it, to precise- just ask Turkey if you’re still unsure of their prowess going forward at their very best.
Those said factors planted the roots of newly-made Welsh heroes in their campaign. Heroes that earned the admiration of a nation despite their eventual shortcomings in the most disastrous fashion. Heroes that shone in the adversity and doubt that had been unfairly heaped on Wales before, as Chris Gunter himself stated, “a bag of air had been kicked”.
Well, it is football, after all. Even more so, it is life. People come and go, players come and go, and heroes come and go. That couldn’t be more true for Wales, who are overseeing the emergence of an exciting crop of younger talent in gradual place of the class of ’16. And, in the maelstrom of vehemency and sentimentality following Saturday’s there lies a school of thought held by Welsh supporters all over: EURO 2020 has paved a path of International success for some of their star performers.
1. Dan James
It takes a lot to bounce back from a turbulent season at club level to flourish for your country at one of the sport’s most prestigious competition, with the footballing world watching on with prying eyes ready to viciously dissect even the slightest mistake on your part. It takes more than just ability. Doing so underpins character, inner steel, self-belief and an unbreakable resilience to strive to be the best in spite of varying knockbacks.
Dan James typifies just that.
After an impressive start to life endured graduation of his first year at Manchester United, the last term didn’t bear quite the same fruit for the rocket-heeled wide man. Instead, he saw his role in the team diminish and only played 15 times in the league, to which rumours arose surrounding an Old Trafford exit.
However, the moment James dug his boots into the Baku turf in Wales’ opener against Switzerland, all of his Premier League inflictions were cast aside. It was a largely one-sided affair; although Wales would go on to claim a crucial point, the sum of the match was illuminated by their inability to control the game and prevent Switzerland’s pressure going forward.
Though despite all that, James stood as a source of excitement down the left-wing and provided Wales with a crucial dimension to their attacking play. He’s one of those players who shoulders that ability, that knack to elevate supporters off their seats and draw them into the action- even when matches are at their most tedious.
All afternoon, James sought to stretch defences with his raw, direct approach and it often led to defenders doubling up on him, which in turn, opened up space for Wales to exploit. He spared no mercy in his constant willingness to run at opponents, take risks and make things happen in the final third and it provided his side with a much-needed dimension. It just so happened that Wales claimed a vital point from the game.
The following match, against Turkey, James was just as exhilarating. Turkish fullback Mehmet Zeki Celik- a reported target for the Red Devils- often came up second best in his battles with James and was left chasing shadows as he made his notorious darting runs in behind the last line of defence.
James’ creativity also came to the fore, with three successful dribbles complemented by four created chances to ensure that Turkey didn’t get a moments rest. Okay, so he was slightly quieter when Wales came up against Roberto Mancini’s high-riding Italy in their final group fixture, although his light was still shining bright and you just felt the Italians had been specifically instructed to keep the speedster at bay.
As a nation who possess a relative footballing history and a population in the region of 3,000,000, Wales often find themselves dismissed. They are the perennial underdogs, spurred on by the ecstasy of proving doubters wrong and striving against all odds. Their very own pocket rocket encapsulates the notion they live by.
2. Danny Ward
Recounting Wales’ EURO 2020 campaign without mentioning Danny Ward borders on impossible. Having not played a league match since May 2017, Ward showcased to the world just why he deserves to be playing regular football and his performances may well have earned him a move.
The goalkeeping berth is the most contested throughout the sport; you can only select one player for the position and it was widely felt that Wales manager Robert Page had a selection dilemma on his hands between Ward and Wayne Hennessey. However, that headache quickly found an answer.
Ward had given the nod for Wales’ opener and it was an opportunity that the Leicester City man seized with both hands (quite literally), pulling off a number of sublime saves to deny Switzerland throughout.
Fabian Schar and the impressive Breel Embolo both called Ward into action with well-struck efforts, though he was there on duty to keep them at bay. The pinnacle of his fine showing came in the game’s dying embers, when Embolo directed a powerful header towards the top left corner. It looked to be a certain winner for Switzerland, until he reached out emphatically to salvage a point for Wales to take from the match.
He subsequently kept a clean sheet in the Turkey game and made several key stops to ensure that Italy, for the sole occasion to date, only found the back of the net once in a fixture.
At 28, Ward is undoubtedly someone who needs to be playing consistent football. Displacing Kasper Schmeichel at the King Power Stadium appears an unattainable task, so it is integral that he earns a move away this summer where he can finally kick on in his club career and get the action he warrants.
It has already been reported that a host of Premier League clubs are monitoring his situation, and as the window progresses, the interest can only be expected to ramp up further and further.
3. Joe Rodon
Following an £11M switch to Tottenham Hotspur from boyhood club Swansea City back in October, Joe Rodon is very much envisaged as a long term proposition within North London- but his importance on the International stage couldn’t differ more from that.
He is arguably Wales’ finest defender and has fully justified that since debuting in 2018, racking up 18 caps and imprinting a lasting impression in the process. In varying friendlies and qualifiers, he’s had his International education and EURO 2020 was widely regarded as the platform where he could show Europe what Welsh supporters have been so certain of. And that he did.
Whilst Wales were often accused of looking shaky defensively, Rodon- who is no senior at 23- implemented the calming, composed presence that the backline was crying out for. He displayed all the attributes of a naturalistic leader as he marshalled and commanded his defence in all four of Wales’ games and perhaps, has just given some food for thought in regards to the future.
The former Cheltenham Town loanee displayed tactical flexibility as he was able to operate effectively as part of a back four and in a back five, which Wales opted within a bid to nullify the Italians in Rome.
And standing at an almighty 6’4, Rodon’s imposing aerial presence often enabled him to step out of the defensive line at times and contest duels, an asset that proved invaluable for Wales when tasked with negating fearsome target men such as Haris Seferovic (Switzerland) and Burak Yilmaz (Turkey).
There’s no denying that without Rodon, the structure and solidity of Wales’ defence would’ve stagnated considerably and it can only be a certainty that his significance will remain just as intact for years to come.
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