Wales enter tournament football for the first time since 1958, with the efforts of one Gareth Bale proving key to Chris Coleman’s men making it to France.
For their first task they head to Bordeaux to take on a Slovakia side which beat Spain in qualifying for their first European Championships, and still boast plenty of players who reached the last 16 at the 2010 World Cup.
Sports writer Mark Jones – who has followed Wales through thin and thinner over the years – takes on ex-professional footballer and Slovakia expert Jakub Savara to give you everything you need to know:
Mark Jones on Wales: The major issue coming into Wales’s first major tournament in 58 years has been the fitness of midfielder Joe Ledley, who broke a bone in his leg in training shortly before Crystal Palace’s FA Cup defeat to Manchester United.
Manager Chris Coleman has said that he’ll give Ledley – a key player alongside Joe Allen in the centre – ‘every chance’ to be fit for the tournament, but this clash in Bordeaux might be coming a little too soon for him. Leicester City’s Premier League winner Andy King stands by to replace him, whilst Allen and Hal Robson-Kanu should shake off knocks to start.
Elsewhere, Coleman will play three central defenders, two of whom will be captain Ashley Williams and Tottenham’s Ben Davies, with a choice to be made over James Collins and James Chester for the final spot.
Jakub Savara on Slovakia: A European football feast engulfs Slovakia for the first time as an independent nation, as Jan Kozak leads a team at the Euros for the first time. After the football fever of the 2010 World Cup this will be just the second major event for Slovakian team.
The Coach said: “The advantage of our team is primarily the fact that the core of the team has experienced six years ago a World Cup in South Africa. The boys have gained much more experience since then and I believe that we will play good matches.” Kozak believes that his experienced players will be complimented perfectly by young, ambitious players.
They will rely on the defensive quality of Martin Skrtel, leadership of Napoli star Marek Hamšík in central midfield and the fast legs of Robert Mak from PAOK and Michal Ďuriš from Plzeň in attack.
Jones: After getting to the brink of such an historic qualification, it was somewhat understandable that Wales would limp over the line, drawing at home to Israel and then qualifying for France following a defeat in Bosnia, before beating Andorra.
The pre-tournament friendlies haven’t offered much by way of indication of how things will go given that both Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale missed three of the four, but the pair did return for the clash with Sweden in Stockholm, a 3-0 defeat in which Bale only played the final half hour.
Savara: After such an amazing qualification campaign, in which Slovakia beat Spain and ended the holders´ 36-match, 8 year unbeaten qualifying run, the Falcons have continued to impress in friendly matches, recording a victory over World Champions Germany just ahead of this tournament. Slovakia have lost only two from their last 20 matches and confidence is high.
Virtually throughout whole of qualification and the recent friendlies Kozak has used his tried and tested stable formula. Only injury would see him deviate from the players and system that have served the team so well.
Jones: Guess who?
Bale is vital to everything that this Wales team do in an attacking sense, given that he either scored or assisted nine of the 11 goals in qualifying.
Getting him the space to have a run at the Slovakia defence will be a crucial part of Coleman’s gameplan, and if Bale can isolate Martin Skrtel – fresh from a dodgy campaign at Liverpool – then he might well get some joy.
Savara: The team performance is what is important to Slovakia but the main role of defence will be not to give a breath to Gareth Bale. This burden will fall heavily on the shoulders of Martin Skrtel.
The undisputed leader of Slovakia´s offense is Marek Hamsik. He is the nation’s global star and he is a player who can change the course of the match on his own. He has been the leader of Slovakia side throughout qualification. The skipper is at the heart of all attacking play and was the top scorer in qualifying. Hamsik will naturally be the Slovakian player given the most attention by the opposition, so he must be sure not to become flustered and attempt to do everyone else’s jobs.
Jones: Despite boasting Bale, Wales rely on staying well-drilled and compact, and whilst that might be the best route to winning it doesn’t usually produce the most fascinating of matches. I don’t see many goals so we’ll go for under 1.5 at 2.45.
Savara: It is the first Euro match for both teams and they will be eager not to lose. Wales and Slovakia are both built on resolute defences and I don´t see many goals here. I recommend going for both teams not to score at 1.61
Jones: Somewhere at the back of my mind I can see Skrtel chopping down Bale and giving away a penalty, so I’ll take Wales to score a penalty at 15.00.
Savara: Something is telling me that after a goalless first half Slovakia will win this game. I´ll take HT/FT – Draw/Slovakia at 6.30
Jones: Wales 1-0 Slovakia at 6.75
Savara: Wales 0-1 Slovakia at 7.00