The biggest hurdle for a Welsh team flying to Baku on Sunday isn’t 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 that brought them to the semifinals five years ago was indefinably special and the formula will be devilishly hard to replicate.
It was the first final in 58 years for “a nation of people who have waited all our lives to see Wales compete in a major tournament,” as defender Chris Gunter later put it.
Ben Davies, Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey could get one last big push
Wales have a lot to live up to after their stunning performance at Euro 2016
It was a team that Gary Speed had begun to build before his tragic death in 2011. Wales played for him. Stadiums in France bounced to the sound of the ‘red wall’ from Wales supporters and the players formed a close bond like few groups ever could.
At one point, they joked about whether Gareth Bale could buy a club like Merthyr Tydfil so they could all stick together as a team. The #togetherstrong motto conceived by the Welsh FA’s digital media team was much more than marketing.
Almost everything again depends on Bale, needless to say. But the big doubt is whether three other players who helped Wales in France propel the fighter jets will be able to reach the heights again after injuries and non-selection have severely curtailed their football over the past three months.
Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies have played just 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 came to be known that summer – even eclipsed Bale. He should have accepted that his Liverpool career was over, but his ability to switch from defense to attack – like Ramsey’s pass against Russia – earned him a place in the UEFA team of the tournament.
Within two weeks of Euro 2016, Allen flew to Florida to join his new Stoke City teammates.
There is promise of a new generation bringing pace and ambition to Wales’ squad
Although injury has dogged him for the past year – an Achilles tendon rupture kept him out for nine months – he began to rediscover the old creative class before suffering a calf injury during his comeback match for Wales in March.
In the challenging friendly game against France – his first game back – there were signs of old Allen. Notable were the first half of the ball pinning Harry Wilson and his general influence on Joe Morrell, whose battle for a place on the Luton Town side this spring exacerbated the lack of playing time for the Wales side. It is Allen’s influence on the young players that Stoke manager Michael O’Neill often speaks of.
A series of injuries have affected Ramsey’s quest for form at Juventus, although he was on the pitch against France for just five minutes before sending Manchester United’s Daniel James in for a chance he could have finished.
Then there’s Tottenham’s Davies, who will always be remembered by Wales fans for the goal block against Slovakia in Bordeaux, without which the team would have lost a goal and the course of the tournament could have been very different.
Allen, Ramsey and Davies have played just eight games between them in the last three months
Davies is recovering from a calf tear that, after a setback during rehab, he felt he could miss this tournament.
But while the older players, Bale aside, have struggled, there is the promise of a new generation bringing pace and ambition.
The presence of James and Wilson, who have been loaned by Liverpool to Cardiff City, means the squad is not dependent on the giants of 2016. Liverpool’s Neco Williams, again short on playing time, can operate on either side of the defense and was a midfielder of utility. man-marking Paul Pogba against France.
Manchester United’s 20-year-old midfielder Dylan Levitt has impressed with his passing range in this week’s friendlies. And there’s the wildcard roster of unlimited 19-year-old Rubin Colwill, who played just six times for Cardiff last season.
Cardiff goalkeeper Kieffer Moore impressed against Albania. Placing Bale, Ramsey and Wilson behind Moore is an option.
Interim manager Rob Page, who took on the role after Ryan Giggs was forced to resign over charges of assaulting two women, brings far less motivational vim than Chris Coleman, but he has more tactical options than the manager of 2016. He is prepared to operate with a three-man front line or a false nine, a three- or four-man defense and to adjust tactics in real time, as he did when France went with a diamond formation in midfield in Nice.
Davies thought: ‘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 guys come in with a little bit of freshness I’ll take it. ‘ Spoken with real 2016 optimism.