Gareth Bale Can Lead Wales Out Of The Shadows And Into Euro 2016

It is a hope that comes around every decade or so, but as Wales prepare to enter Euro 2016 qualification combat on Tuesday evening, the hope is becoming a real belief.

A Welshman hasn’t played football in a major international tournament since a 17-year-old Brazilian called Pele knocked the country out of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, and although there have been enough false dawns since then to comfortably sustain a nation of just over three million people, this time it seems different.

The change in the qualification process for the finals in France - which will feature 24 teams instead of 16 - is one of the key reasons for that optimism. Another is the standard of opposition in Group B, whilst a third is the increasing number of Welsh players who are making their presence felt in the Premier League. None of them come close to the key reason, though.

In the past three years, the whole of Wales have stood by and watched with amazement as Gareth Bale has taken the leap from promising player to world superstar.

Now the most expensive member of Real Madrid’s galaxy of stars, Bale has clearly matured greatly in those years and there still seems like he’s got further to go.

The cynics amongst you could argue that UEFA’s decision to expand the tournament is due in part to the fact that they want to include more marketable names such as Bale’s. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Sweden missed out on one of the 16 European places available at this year’s World Cup, whilst any tournament would be enriched by the likes of Serbia’s Nemanja Matic, Montenegro’s Stevan Jovetic or Armenia’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

If that is the case, though, then Wales simply have to make the most of it.

Lacking an out-and-out centre-forward of proven quality – although Sam Vokes impressed at Burnley last season before a serious injury – they are likely to begin this campaign in Andorra on Tuesday with Bale as the centralised attacking threat.

He will be a mobile menace to a team who have only ever won one competitive fixture in their history, with his movement the key to a gameplan which will surely see Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey take up the goalscoring positions he’s frequently seen in for his club side.

A young forward such as Fulham’s George Williams or Tom Lawrence, who left Manchester United for Leicester City on transfer deadline day after one appearance for the Red Devils, could be used to support the talented pair, with Liverpool’s Joe Allen and Swansea captain Ashley Williams the key men in the centres of midfield and defence respectively.

Odds of 1.11 to beat Andorra on Tuesday suggest that this isn’t the most taxing of Wales’s qualifiers, and indeed those are likely to come in a Cardiff double-header against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Cyprus next month when wins will be vital in a group which is probably going to be won by Belgium.

That said, for all of the talented players that Marc Wilmots has at his disposal he doesn’t have one as good as Bale, and having drawn in Belgium with a shadow side last October, Wales shouldn’t feel too overawed by them.

The key is Bale, but then it is also about generating belief.

Wales are probably going to have to win their first three matches, but they won their first four in qualification for Euro 2004 – including beating Italy – only to controversially lose to Russia in a playoff. Ten years earlier, they missed out on the 1994 World Cup when Paul Bodin hit the bar with a penalty against Romania.

Those near misses will never leave the Welsh psyche until they reach a tournament, and whilst questions remain over whether or not Chris Coleman is a good enough manager to get them there after picking up the pieces from the tragic Gary Speed, in Bale he’s got a man who is used to answering every question asked of him.

Both he and Ramsey scored crucial goals to help win their teams silverware in the past few months. Both can do it on the biggest stages imaginable.

Now it’s time they dragged their country there.


Wales are 4.00 to finish in one of the top two spots in Group B

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