Wales host Slovakia as Euro 2020 qualifying gets under way this weekend, with Ryan Giggs hoping to lead the Dragons to back-to-back European Championships.
After the high of going all the way to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 – Wales’ maiden appearance at a major finals for almost 60 years – there followed the low of failure to make the World Cup in Russia last summer under previous boss Chris Coleman.
Giggs has replaced him and his reign really starts in Cardiff this Sunday as Wales set out on the road to next summer’s finals.
They trundled to an unconvincing 1-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago in a friendly on Wednesday night.
Here are three takeaways for Giggs and Wales fans as they now launch their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign.
BRINGING BACK THE BIG GUNS
Fans in Wrexham were disappointed that superstars Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and a slew of other big names failed to feature against Trinidad, but boss Giggs was rightly unapologetic as he sets his sights on Wales’ Euro 2020 opening qualifier against Slovakia.
A mix of fringe, young and newly-introduced international players were given the chance to impress at the Racecourse – teenage Liverpool attacker Ben Woodburn, 19, Leeds United striker Tyler Roberts (20) and 21-year-old Leicester forward George Thomas all taking the chance to shine.
There was also a smattering of seniority in the ranks with the side led by the vastly experienced Ashley Williams and record caps holder Chris Gunter – who surpassed Neville Southall’s 92 appearances in the 1-0 defeat to Albania last November.
But if fans and critics were skeptical heading into the pivotal opening qualifier with Slovakia in Cardiff on Sunday after a less than stellar performance in North Wales, they should be comforted by the list of names likely to return for that fixture.
Bale, Ramsey, Ben Davies and Joe Allen were just four of the big guns watching on from the Wrexham stands on Wednesday. Additionally, first choice goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, exciting Liverpool attacker Harry Wilson – tearing it up on loan at Derby in the Championship – and Bournemouth duo David Brooks and Chris Mepham are in contention to return for the start of Group E’s games.
Ethan Ampadu, Sam Vokes and Tom Lawrence will be missing but lightning quick Swansea midfielder Daniel James is another exciting youngster who could feature.
RYAN REALISES IT’S A RESULTS BUSINESS
It’s a year since Giggs was appointed and after a stuttering start to his tenure, it’s fair to say the honeymoon period is over and now results are expected. And the man in the hotseat knows it.
Ahead of the Trinidad game, the former Manchester United winger said: “Getting Wales to a major championships, that’s how I will be judged. I knew that going into the job.”
But expectation, in Wales’ case, is a good thing. It is a sign of how far they have come in a short space of time. For far too long, they had been a nation slumbering under a blanket of unfulfillment and ineptitude. Qualifying for Euro 2016 – reaching a maiden major finals in 58 years – raised hopes, which were rightly raised even higher when the Dragons roared to the semi-finals. There, their magical journey was finally burned away at the hands of Cristiano Ronaldo and eventual champions Portugal.
But a nation now expects. And while Giggs may be feeling the pressure, it is an eminently more advantageous position to be in than perennial failures. The heroes of Euro 2016 are slowly – but correctly – being jettisoned. The careers of Joe Ledley and Ashley Williams peaked in France and, while Williams remains, this is surely his swansong.
The results so far might not have been brilliant (four wins, one draw, five defeats), but it has to be remembered that Giggs has introduced a lot of new, exciting and talented young faces.
The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and with the tournament – like three summers ago – expanding once again to 24 entrants, progression should be easier. Especially for a nation definitely going places.
He deserves credit for the project being implemented. But after failure to reach Russia last summer, there will be few excuses should Giggs not get this group to next summer’s finals.
IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT BALE
Wales fans might have been left disappointed at not getting a glimpse of their heroes against Trinidad – Real Madrid superstar Bale in-particular – but it is the next generation that should really be generating excitement among supporters.
Bale – unlike in Spain – is cherished by Wales fans, and rightly so. But the pressure he heaps on himself to perform for his nation, as well as the expectation fans and media alike pin to the 29-year-old, is not healthy.
It is also not fair as the Dragons are hardly a one-man army. Bale has often been man-marked and double-teamed by opponents in recent years and can be ineffective. Incoming Juventus midfielder Ramsey was actually their talisman in France three summers ago, with Davies, James Chester, Williams, Gunter, Ledley, Hal Robson-Kanu and Vokes all unsung heroes.
“We all know what a talent he is, and if he plays games he’ll score goals,” Giggs said of Bale prior to the Trinidad victory. “But also I want to take the pressure off him at the same time, so if he’s not available we’re not just reliant on one player.”
Giggs instead took the chance to shine the spotlight on a rising wave of young talent he has been introducing to the international stage – particularly in attack.
“With the emergence of Harry Wilson, David Brooks and Dan James we’ve got so many attacking options,” Giggs added. And he isn’t kidding.
Brooks has been a revelation since stepping up to the Premier League with Bournemouth this season. Bought from Sheffield United after starring in the Championship last term, he has notched six goals and four assists in 25 appearances, and his cross for Vokes’ consolation goal in the 4-1 friendly hammering by Spain last October was world-class.
Wilson has whipped in 12 goals on loan at Frank Lampard’s Derby this season from 37 outings in all competitions. His goals are often spectacular, proved by the fact the Liverpool loanee has won the Rams’ goal of the month accolade five times in a row.
James, meanwhile, is also shining at Swansea, with four goals in 25 appearances. He caught the eye recently with a mermerising length of the field strike in the 4-1 FA Cup fifth round win over Brentford – which won the goal of the round.
The future burns bright for the Dragons.
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