Do the ageing trio have one big push left in them? Wales veterans Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies could play key parts for the Dragons once more as they look to recapture the spirit of Euro 2016
- Wales have a lot to live up to following their semi-final heroics of Euro 2016
- Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies could again play key parts for Wales
- However all three have struggled with injuries over the past three months
- There is the promise though of a new generation of players coming into the team
- Find out the latest Euro 2020 news including fixtures, live action and results here.
The biggest hurdle ahead for a Wales side who fly out to Baku on Sunday is not so much the size of the group stage challenge against Switzerland, Turkey and Italy — but how to recapture the spirit of 2016.
The confluence of factors which took them all the way to the semi-final five years ago was indefinably special and the formula will be fiendishly hard to replicate.
It was the first finals in 58 years for ‘a nation of people who have waited our whole lives to see Wales competing at a major tournament’ as defender Chris Gunter later put it.
Ben Davies, Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey could have one last big push in front of them
Wales have a lot to live up to following their stunning performance back at Euro 2016
It was a team which Gary Speed had started to build before his tragic death in 2011. Wales played for him. Stadiums in France bounced to the sound of the ‘red wall’ of Wales supporters and the players bonded like few groups ever could.
At one stage, they joked about whether Gareth Bale could buy a club like Merthyr Tydfil, so they could all stay together as a team. The #togetherstrong motto dreamed up by the Welsh FA’s digital media team was a whole lot more than marketing.
Almost everything hinges on Bale again, needless to say. But the big imponderable is whether three other players who helped jet-propel Wales in France will be able to hit the heights again, after injury and non-selection have severely constricted their football in the past three months.
Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies have played only eight games between them in the past three months. They are now 31, 30 and 28, respectively.
There were times in the 2016 tournament when Allen — the Welsh Pirlo as he became known that summer — even eclipsed Bale. He had been forced to accept that his Liverpool career was over, but his capacity to switch defence to attack — like the pass that put Ramsey in against Russia — earned him a place in the UEFA team of the tournament.
Within two weeks of the Euro 2016’s conclusion, Allen was flying to Florida to join with his new Stoke City team-mates.
There is promise of a new generation who bring pace and ambition to the Wales squad
Although injury has stalked him in the last year — an achilles tendon rupture kept him out for nine months — he was beginning to rediscover the old creative class before suffering a calf injury on his comeback game for Wales in March.
In the challenging midweek friendly against France — his first game back — there were signs of the old Allen. Of note were the first-half ball which located Harry Wilson and his general influence on Joe Morrell, whose struggle for a place in the Luton Town side this spring compounds the lack of game time for the Wales squad. It is Allen’s influence on the young players which Stoke manager Michael O’Neill often speaks about.
A series of injuries has affected Ramsey’s search for form at Juventus, although he had been on the pitch for only five minutes against France before sending Manchester United’s Daniel James in for a chance he could have finished.
Then there is Tottenham’s Davies, who will always be remembered by Wales fans for the goalline block against Slovakia in Bordeaux, without which the team would have been a goal down and the course of the tournament conceivably very different.
Allen, Ramsey and Davies have played just eight games between them in the last three months
Davies has been recovering from a calf tear which, after one setback during rehabilitation, he felt he might miss this tournament.
But while the older players, Bale aside, have struggled, there is the promise of a new generation who bring pace and ambition..
The presence of James and Wilson, on loan to Cardiff City from Liverpool, means the side is not reliant on the giants of 2016. Liverpool’s Neco Williams, yet another short of game time, can operate on either side of defence and was a utility midfielder man-marking Paul Pogba against France.
The 20-year-old Manchester United midfielder Dylan Levitt has impressed with his passing range in this week’s friendlies. And there is the wildcard selection of uncapped 19-year-old Rubin Colwill, who played only six times for Cardiff last season.
Cardiff target man Kieffer Moore made an impact against Albania. Deploying Bale, Ramsey and Wilson behind Moore is one option.
Interim manager Rob Page, thrust into the role after Ryan Giggs was forced to step down amid charges of assaulting two women, brings far less motivational vim than Chris Coleman, but he has more tactical options than the 2016 manager. He is willing to operate with a three-man front line or a false nine, a three or four-man defence and to adapt tactics in real time, as he did when France went with a diamond formation in midfield in Nice.
Davies reflected: ‘You could say the players haven’t played enough games but the season we’ve had and the number of games we’ve had — if the boys are coming into with a bit of freshness, I’ll take it.’ Spoken with true 2016 optimism.
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