Liverpool duo Ben Woodburn and Harry Wilson lead new wave of Wales stars set to roar under Dragons boss Ryan Giggs

Matt Jones 25/03/2018
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Wales recorded their largest win in 22 years in Ryan Giggs' first match in charge.

Welsh football is on the rise, with the Dragons roaring ever since their famed Euro 2016 campaign which saw Chris Coleman’s side make a run to the semi-finals, where they were beaten by eventual champions Portugal.

Progress was expected to follow, although the fire died down dramatically as the high of making a first major finals appearance in nearly 60 years was followed by tame failure to qualify for this summer’s World Cup.

A disappointing qualifying campaign was then followed with the news that inspirational manager Coleman was stepping down after five years in charge – returning to club management with Championship Sunderland.

He was replaced by another former player in Manchester United hero Ryan Giggs, although the fanbase was divided due to Giggs’ questionable commitment to his nation during his playing days, having only made 64 appearances for Wales and pulling out of numerous friendly squads.

But there is no doubting a hue of excitement hums around the future of the national side under Giggs, whose experience at the elite level and aura as a serial winner will undoubtedly rub off on the Welsh players, including an exciting new wave of talent emerging through the ranks.

A slew of young or new faces featured in Giggs’ first match as manager as the Dragons torched China in their opening China Cup game, winning 6-0 in Nanning on Thursday.

Wales kids graphic

Here, we take a closer look at Wales’ rising young stars and new faces among the squad, and predicts the likelihood of them establishing themselves at international level.

BEN WOODBURN

Club: Liverpool

Age: 18

Position: Forward

One of the nation’s most burgeoning talents. Woodburn burst into flames on the international stage during Wales’ World Cup qualifiers with a stunning winning goal in the 1-0 victory over Austria last October – striking a fizzing shot into the bottom right-hand corner barely a minute after entering the fray as Wales chased a goal.

He was a subject of a tug of war between Wales and England in his youth before that ended with his stunning debut. He followed that performance with a mature outing in Wales’ next game against Moldova, embarking on a powerful run and crossing for Hal Robson-Kanu’s winner.

Promptly signed a five-year extension to his Liverpool deal and has earned the praise of boss Jurgen Klopp who dubbed him the ‘Prince of Wales’. Hasn’t shown any trepidation of stepping onto the big stage, attested by his confident displays and willingness to get on the ball.

First-team chances: 9/10

Ben Woodburn lights up Cardiff with the winning goal against Austria in September.

Ben Woodburn lights up Cardiff with the winning goal against Austria in September.

HARRY WILSON

Club: Liverpool (on loan at Hull City)

Age: 21

Position: Midfielder

Another one of Wales’ exciting youngsters on the books at Liverpool, although his two Wales caps have arrived almost five years apart. Garnered a lot of praise after becoming the country’s youngest ever debutant in October 2013 when making his bow, aged just 16 years and 207 days when he replaced Robson-Kanu against Belgium in a dead rubber 2014 World Cup qualifier – beating Gareth Bale’s record by 108 days.

His second appearance amazingly came last Thursday in an impressive display in the 6-0 China Cup rout of the hosts in Nanning. He celebrated his second cap and his 21st birthday with a fine goal and assist. Looked comfortable on the big stage and has performed well on loan at Championship Hull this season, scoring three goals in seven appearances.

His flowing locks remind fans of Joe Allen and he shares similarities with the Stoke midfielder, if more of an attacking threat.

First-team chances: 8/10

Harry Wilson shone on his first Wales appearance in over four years with a sublime goal in the 6-0 rout of China.

Harry Wilson shone on his first Wales appearance in over four years with a sublime goal in the 6-0 rout of China.

ETHAN AMPADU

Club: Chelsea

Age: 17

Position: Central defender

The exciting Chelsea defender was due to meet up with his Wales team-mates for the China Cup but had to withdraw from Ryan Giggs’ squad after suffering a season-ending injury, fracturing an ankle in the 4-2 UEFA Youth League win over Real Madrid last week.

Exeter-born Ampadu made his Exeter City debut as a 15-year old before signing for Chelsea in the summer of 2017. He has impressed Blues manager Antonio Conte this season during a handful of first-team outings, especially in an assured and physically imposing performance in the heart of Chelsea’s defence in a 2-1 League Cup win over Bournemouth in December.

Earlier in the competition, in September, he had become the youngest first team debutant and first player born in the 2000’s to play for the club’s senior team, against Nottingham Forest. Another player who has been chased by other countries and could still commit to England, Ireland or Ghana as his two appearances have been in friendlies, but has said he will not change his mind about representing Wales.

First-team chances: 8/10

Chelsea teenager Ethan Ampadu is one of Wales' brightest young prospects.

Chelsea teenager Ethan Ampadu is one of Wales’ brightest young prospects.

DAVID BROOKS

Club: Sheffield United

Age: 20

Position: Midfielder

Made his senior debut in the friendly against France in November but has not been included in the squad for the China Cup, with injury and a bout of glandular fever meaning he has not completed a full 90 minutes this year.

His international future looked to lie with England when, in May 2017, he was called up to the Wales U20 squad for the 2017 Toulon Tournament but later withdrew and instead represented England, named the best player and scoring in the final as the Three Lions beat the Ivory Coast on penalties.

Was then called up by Wales U21s for the European Championship qualifiers, scoring in a 3-0 win against Switzerland, and has rejoined the squad following his senior bow.

Despite his troubles this year, has still made over 20 appearances for the Blades and was rumored to be attracting interest from Premier League sides Liverpool, Tottenham and Everton in January, with the 20-year-old already said to be valued at £20million.

First-team chances: 7/10

David Brooks played for England U20s but has since chosen to represent Wales.

David Brooks played for England U20s but has since chosen to represent Wales.

Other new names in Giggs’ China Cup squad:

CHRIS MAXWELL

Club: Preston North End

Age: 27

Position: Goalkeeper

Yet to make his Wales debut, the North End stopper has kept 12 clean sheets in 29 Championship games this season while his 28 goals conceded is bettered only by Fulham’s David Button from keepers who have played at least 20 games.

First-team chances: 6/10

MICHAEL CROWE

Club: Ipswich Town

Age: 22

Position: Goalkeeper

Is yet to make his first-team debut for Ipswich and has played just 10 games of senior football during loan spells at National League sides Woking and Braintree. Born in London and raised in Norway, Crowe qualifies for Wales through his grandparents.

First-team chances: 4/10

DECLAN JOHN

Position: Rangers

Age: 22

Position: Left-back

Like Wilson, made his Wales debut in 2013, aged 18, but then fell off the grid as his career stalled at Cardiff City. Is now with Scottish giants Rangers where he is playing a key role, featuring in 26 games and scoring three goals this season. Looked assured as he played 90 minutes against China.

First-team chances: 7/10

CONNOR ROBERTS

Club: Swansea City

Age: 22

Position: Right-back

Made his Swans debut in the FA Cup against Wolverhampton in January and drew praise from manager Carlos Carvalhal, who revealed club legend Alan Curtis recommended that he consider the full-back. Only has three age grade caps (one at U19 and two at U21 level) but showed a willingness to get forward while also showing an appetite for the defensive element of his role against Wolves.

First-team chances: 4/10

TOM LOCKYER

Club: Bristol Rovers

Age: 23

Position: Central defender

The former Cardiff trainee has made over 200 appearances for Rovers since signing in 2012 and is widely seen as one of the hottest prospects in League One. Having made seven appearances at U21 level, Lockyer made his debut against Panama last year and is the first Rovers player to play for a home nation since Marcus Browning won five Wales caps in 1996 and 1997.

First-team chances: 3/10

LEE EVANS

Club: Sheffield United

Age: 23

Position: Midfielder

Evans missed out on the chance to possibly pick up a Championship winners medal and be part of a Premier League side next season when he left Wolves to sign for Sheffield United in January, but it already looks to be exactly what he needed. Has played 11 games for the Blades, who are vying for a Championship play-off spot. Netted once and contributed seven assists while on loan at Wigan in League One in the first half of the season.

First-team chances: 5/10

RYAN HEDGES

Club: Barnsley

Age: 22

Position: Forward

Attended Hawarden High School in Flintshire, which counts Michael Owen, Gary Speed and Danny Ward among its fellow ex-pupils. Has scored three goals in 24 appearances for Barnsley since joining them permanently in January 2017 from Swansea. Made his Wales debut against Panama.

First-team chances: 2/10

CHRIS MEPHAM

Club: Brentford

Age: 20

Position: Central defender

Four years ago he was a Sunday league player and made his Wales debut as a late replacement for Ben Davies against China. Released by Chelsea at 14, rejected by Watford and turned away by Queens Park Rangers, Mepham drifted into Sunday league football before resurfacing at Brentford, where he has made such an impression this season that in January Bournemouth had a bid of £6.5m rejected.

First-team chances: 7/10

MARLEY WATKINS

Club: Norwich City

Age: 27

Position: Winger

Scored 10 goals for a Barnsley side that defied expectations in the Championship last season, earning him a move to Norwich last summer, although he has struggled to make an impact and is out of favour with Canaries boss Daniel Farke. Watkins, who is of Welsh and French descent, earned his second cap as a substitute against China.

First-team chances: 1/10

BILLY BODIN

Club: Preston North End

Age: 26

Position: Forward

Bodin, the son of former Wales international Paul, previously represented Wales at U21, U19 and U17 level but this is his first time in the senior squad. Joined Preston in January and has scored one goal in 13 appearances to help the Deepdale side rise to eighth and on the brink of the Championship play-offs.

First-team chances: 3/10

TOM BRADSHAW

Club: Barnsley

Age: 25

Position: Striker

Scored on both his Wales U19 and U21 debuts, the Tywyn talent has netted 11 goals in 38 games in the Championship for Barnsley this season. The prolific marksman enjoyed consecutive 20-goal campaigns with Walsall in League One before making the step-up to the Championship with the Oakwell outfit, netting eight times in 45 games during his debut campaign. Replaced Harry Wilson against China to earn second cap.

First-team chances: 6/10

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Contrasting international form for Real Madrid stars Cristiano Ronaldo and Raphael Varane

Alex Rea 25/03/2018
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Real Madrid duo Raphael Varane and Cristiano Ronaldo

With a World Cup just around the corner the international break provides an avenue for a collective forensic eye on the tactics, style and personnel teams will be looking to adopt in Russia.

Indeed, positions can be won and lost in these penultimate fixtures ahead of the summer tournament and naturally some players have grabbed their opportunity while others may have let it slip.

With that in mind, we look at some winners and losers from the initial set of matches.

WINNERS

CRISTIANO RONALDO

Portugal v Egypt - International Friendly

Mohamed Salah 1-2 Cristiano Ronaldo. Salah may be the ‘Egyptian King’ but it was a Portuguese prince who claimed sovereignty as two stoppage-time headers from Ronaldo graciously rescued his nation.

Egypt went ahead through a typically sharp Salah strike and Hector Cuper’s organised and resilient unit frustrated a confused Portugal side.

But in Ronaldo, Fernando Santos possesses an equaliser and a player capable of papering over his obvious tactical inadequacies.

This won’t be the last we hear of Ronaldo and Salah being central figures for their nations.

MARC-ANDRE TER STEGEN

Germany v Spain - International Friendly

Toni Kroos considers ter Stegen to be a “perfect goalkeeper” and it’s hard to argue with that assessment.

Aside from Lionel Messi, the 25-year-old has been Barcelona’s most outstanding player this season, emerging as one of the world’s most premier keepers.

Bayern Munich star Manuel Neuer remains sidelined through injury with his absence opening the door for ter Stegen to get vital minutes as Germany No.1.

And he is more than proving an able deputy, producing a stunning point-blank stop to deny Isco in the pulsating 1-1 draw with Spain.

If Neuer isn’t able to get games under his belt ahead of the summer, Joachim Low has a big decision to make.

HAKIM ZIYECH

Every World Cup has one team or player who emerges from the shadows of relative obscurity to global prominence. This year’s edition could be a seminal moment for Ziyech.

Morocco are a talent-rich side and Ajax star Ziyech hallmarks their precocious ability. AC Milan and Roma are beginning to take notice and while Justin Kluivert has commanded plenty of attention this season, it’s Ziyech who has provided much of the Dutch’s side attacking thrust.

That same responsibility is shouldered at international level and the 25-year-old has translated his club form for the African nation.

He was instrumental in the 2-1 win over Serbia, handing his side the lead with a 29th-minute penalty before delivering an exquisite cross Khalid Boutaib to easily head home the winner.

LOSERS

DANI ALVES

FBL-FRIENDLY-RUS-BRA

Dani Alves moved up to third in Brazil’s list of most-capped players with his 106th appearance in the 3-0 win over Russia.

It was, however, one of his most unsettling displays. There is growing concern among the Selecao camp that the Paris Saint-Germain full-back may be past his prime.

The 34-year-old’s degeneration was all too obvious in the first-half and it seems what was once his finest quality is now his biggest vice – speed.

He would cut-in an occupy the spots required for Brazil’s central playmakers and then struggled to return to his right-back slot with ample space left to be exploited.

Against any side with pace, the weakness could be Brazil’s undoing and there are calls for Corinthians right-back Fagner to replace him.

RAPHAEL VARANE

FBL-FRA-COL-FRIENDLY

France on paper have one of the deepest squads in terms of talent but the reality is several stars in key positions are in poor form.

There are serious question marks of Hugo Lloris in goal, Paul Pogba’s struggles are well documented while Varane has looked increasingly erratic for Real Madrid this season.

He did little to dispel the anxiety around his form in the 3-2 defeat by Colombia. Though they are notoriously harsh markers, L’ Equipe’s 3/10 rating for Varane was justified.

For all three Colombia strikes, both he and Samuel Umtiti were caught napping. Positionally, he’s borderline negligible at times and his athleticism repeatedly papers of the cracks.

He’s far from convincing and with the likes of Presnel Kimpembe and Laurent Koscielny available, his place in the starting XI for the World Cup is in serious jeopardy.

ADIDAS TELSTAR

U21 Germany v U21 Israel - 2019 UEFA Under21 European Championship Qualifier

David De Gea, Pepe Reina and Marc-Andre ter Stegen all lined up to slam this year’s World Cup matchball.

“It’s really strange,” De Gea said. “It could have been made a lot better.”

His understudy Reina weighed in and added: “I bet you as much as you like that we’ll see at least 35 goals from long range in Russia, because it’s impossible to work out.

“It’s covered in a plastic film that makes it difficult to hold on to. Goalkeepers are going to have a lot of problems with this ball.”

“The ball could be better; it moves a lot. But I think we’re just going to have to get used to working with it and try to get to grips with it as quickly as possible before the World Cup starts,” ter Stegen told AS. “We’ve got no other option.”

It’s not a good look for adidas who will desperately hope their Telstar iteration doesn’t follow the infamous Jabulani matchball in stirring up controversy.

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Lionel Messi trains at Real Madrid training ground following hamstring injury

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Messi in action at Valdebebas on Sunday.

Lionel Messi is training at Real Madrid‘s Valdebebas complex ahead of Argentina’s friendly against Spain on Tuesday.

The Barcelona icon has stepped behind enemy lines in preparation for the mouthwatering friendly clash at Atletico Madrid’s home stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano.

Messi missed Friday’s match against Italy due to a hamstring problem, which he admitted he had been carrying for some time.

Argentina's forward Lionel Messi takes part in a training session in Madrid on March 25, 2018 ahead of an international friendly football match between Spain and Argentina. / AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

Real rival: Blaugrana legend Messi trains in the Spanish capital.

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