LONDON (Reuters) - On paper, and according to the FIFA rankings, Wales have a real chance of emerging out of European Championship Group B in their first major tournament since the 1958 World Cup.
The problem could be England’s presence in a group that includes Russia and Slovakia. Such are the headlines that will surround the fixture against Roy Hodgson’s side that one-eyed supporters might consider beating their neighbours as the main objective.
When Wales qualified for Euro 2016 the eccentric finger-pointing celebrations of Joe Ledley went viral. Quite what the bearded midfielder might come up with should Wales shock England is anyone’s guess, but his moves would almost certainly be copied on every dance floor around Cardiff.
The manager Chris Coleman, who played all of his career in England, must ensure his players focus beyond the hoopla and score-settling in a match that pitches club mates against each other.
Coleman knows that in Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey he has fabulously gifted players whom the England manager would love to include in his squad. Coleman’s achievement has been to build around them a team of less-gifted, supporting players.
That said it is impossible to ignore the importance of Bale, who scored seven of Wales’s 11 goals in qualifying and from whom miracles will again be expected.
Wales’s talisman was given a free rein in a 5-3-1-1 formation for the qualifiers, tucked in behind Reading’s Hal Robson-Kanu with Joe Allen, a bit-part player under Juergen Klopp at Liverpool this season, Ledley and Ramsey in midfield. Coleman will probably plan for something similar in France.
Most apprehension surrounds Wales’s defence despite a superb qualifying record in which they conceded just four goals — only Romania, England and Spain let in fewer — in losing just once.
Captain Ashley Williams deserved much of the credit for that record but the powerful centre half showed signs of struggling for his club Swansea at the end of the Premier League season and may find the pace and mobility of top-class international football a challenge. At least, Coleman, a former centre half of high calibre, will know how to advise him.
The draw has fallen exactly as the manager would have wished, with Slovakia, seemingly the group’s weakest team, first up and Russia at the end.
Coleman, who was booed regularly at the start of his five-year tenure, has proved adept at drawing up the right game-plan for so-called superior teams, as Wales’s 1-0 qualifying win over Belgium proved. They are not a team to be under-estimated.
Reporting by Neil Robinson, editing by Ed Osmond