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Wales Euro 2020 preview - prediction, fixtures, squad, star player

:Headline: Wales Euro 2020 preview - prediction, fixtures, squad, star player:
Ahead of this summer's Euro 2020, Sports Mole previews the chances of Wales as they aim to make a similar impact to the one five years ago in France.
Sports Mole

Five years on from their magical run to the semi-finals of the European Championship, Wales will be seeking to capture the hearts and minds of a nation once again at the delayed Euro 2020 finals.

The Dragons were beaten by eventual winners Portugal in the final four at the 2016 instalment, an achievement made all the more special by the fact it was only the second tournament they had ever qualified for.

After agonisingly missing out on the 2018 World Cup, a largely new cast of players and coaching staff guided Wales through a tricky qualifying group and now they are out to make their mark on another major competition.

Wales's preparations may not have been great, with manager Ryan Giggs having to step aside while he awaits a trial for an alleged assault, but confidence is high in the camp of reaching the knockout stages once again this time around.

Here, Sports Mole assesses Wales's chances at Euro 2020, which will take place across 11 different countries.


GROUP

Group A is far from a group of death - that honour goes to Group F, which contains France, Germany, Portugal and Hungary - but it is arguably the toughest to call in terms of the three teams that will follow strong favourites Italy into the last 16.

Italy appear to be on their way back up, having gone unbeaten since 2018 to climb up to seventh in the FIFA rankings, while Switzerland (13), Wales (17) and Turkey (29) are also all ranked in the world's top-30 nations.

Wales will be hopeful that the meeting with Italy in Rome on matchday three will have little riding on it, but that will mean overcoming Switzerland and Turkey in back-to-back clashes in Baku - no easy feat given both nations' form.

FIXTURES

June 12: Wales vs. Switzerland (2pm, Baku Olympic Stadium, Baku)
June 16: Turkey vs. Wales (5pm, Baku Olympic Stadium, Baku)
June 20: Italy vs. Wales (5pm, Stadio Olimpico, Rome)


HOW THEY QUALIFIED

Wales' hopes of qualifying for successive European Championship finals looked pretty bleak three games into their qualifying campaign after following up a late home win against Slovakia with defeats away at Croatia and Hungary.

That left the Dragons playing catch up right from the off and, realistically, unable to drop any points in a huge home clash with Azerbaijan in September 2019. Gareth Bale scored an 84th-minute winner in Cardiff that day and Giggs's side did not look back.

An away draw in Slovakia and home draw with World Cup finalists Croatia were considered positive results, with Wales knowing that victories away at Azerbaijan and home to Hungary in their final two games would guarantee them a place at the Euros.

They did exactly that, winning both matches 2-0 to seal second place behind Croatia and automatic qualification, ending their campaign unbeaten in their final five matches.

Wales conceded just five goals in their eight qualifying fixtures - only six teams had a better defensive record - though the 10 goals they scored was one of the lowest tallies among the teams that progressed.


RECENT FORM

Wales drew 0-0 with Albania in their final warm-up friendly on Saturday in front of 6,500 people at the Cardiff City Stadium - their first home game with supporters in attendance since beating Hungary in their final qualifier 19 months ago.

The Dragons mustered just two shots on target in a low-key affair, though they did at least look solid at the back as they kept a third clean sheet in four matches.

That followed three days on from a 3-0 loss to France in their other pre-Euros friendly. Stand-in boss Rob Page would no doubt have taken more positives than negatives away from that game, having played some good football with 10 men against the world champions.

Page's side have lost just one of their last 13 competitive games over the past two years - a 3-1 loss to Belgium in World Cup qualifying three months ago - with nine of those matches ending in victory.


SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Wayne Hennessey (Crystal Palace), Adam Davies (Stoke City), Danny Ward (Leicester City)

Defenders: Ben Davies (Tottenham Hotspur), Joe Rodon (Tottenham Hotspur), Chris Mepham (Bournemouth), Connor Roberts (Swansea City), Tom Lockyer (Luton Town), Neco Williams (Liverpool), Ben Cabango (Swansea City), Rhys Norrington-Davies (Sheffield United), Chris Gunter (Charlton Athletic)

Midfielders: Aaron Ramsey (Juventus), Ethan Ampadu (Chelsea), Matthew Smith (Manchester City), Joe Morrell (Luton Town), Joe Allen (Stoke City), Jonathan Williams (Cardiff City), David Brooks (Bournemouth), Harry Wilson (Cardiff City), Dylan Levitt (Manchester United), Rubin Colwill (Cardiff City)

Forwards: Kieffer Moore (Cardiff City), Dan James (Manchester United), Tyler Roberts (Leeds United), Gareth Bale (Real Madrid)


STAR PLAYER - GARETH BALE

Bale's talents may have dwindled somewhat since Euro 2016 - which is also the case for the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen - but he still remains a top-class talent, as he showed in the Premier League last season.

The 31-year-old ended the campaign with 11 goals in 20 league appearances, averaging a goal every 99 minutes that he was on the field - the best return of any player in the division.

Wales do not rely on their star man as much as they used to, which can only be a good thing, though there is no doubt that if they are to get close to matching their achievement from five years ago then Bale needs to be at his best.

While Bale is without a goal for Wales since October 2019, he is the Dragons' all-time leading scorer with 33 goals in 91 caps and has a habit of popping up in the biggest games, as was the case with that most recent strike against Croatia.


MANAGER - ROB PAGE

Giggs had the tough task of replacing Chris Coleman, who guided Wales to the Euro 2016 semis, and he succeeded in his mission of taking Wales to this summer's finals while at the same time replacing some of the older faces.

However, the Manchester United legend had to step down from the position in November 2020 after being charged with assaulting two women, which he denies. The trial will be held in January 2022, meaning Page will remain in charge for at least another seven months.

Page may lack managerial experience at the top level, having only previously managed Port Vale and Northampton Town at senior level, but he can be more than happy with his results since filling in for Giggs.

The 46-year-old helped his country finish top of their Nations League group in November and has made a positive start to qualifying, with the aforementioned loss to Belgium being followed up with a late win against the Czech Republic.

It may not be ideal for Wales being without the man who guided them to the tournament but, as the players have repeatedly pointed out, there has been a seamless transition under Page and Giggs's absence will not be used as an excuse.


EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP RECORD

Best finish: Semi-finals (2016)

Wales have only previously qualified for two major tournaments - the 1958 World Cup in Sweden and Euro 2016 in France. Appearances may be few and far between, but there is no doubt that the Dragons leave their mark when they do qualify.

They reached the quarter-finals of that only previous World Cup involvement, where they were knocked out by a Pele-inspired Brazil, and of course reached the last four at the Euros five years ago.

It was a magical summer for Coleman's charges, who finished top of a group containing England, Slovakia and Russia, before eliminating Northern Ireland and Belgium in the last 16 and quarter-finals respectively.

Overcoming Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal proved a step too far in the semis, but the squad were welcomed back by thousands upon their arrival in Cardiff. Only eight players remain from that competition, and for Ramsey, Bale & Co, this may be their last taste of a major international tournament.


PREDICTION

Wales's group contains a heavyweight team in Italy and three sides with very little between them. Four of the best third-placed teams progress, but the tight nature of the group will work against the Dragons.

We can envisage plenty of draws in the games involving Wales, Switzerland and Turkey, giving each side a low tally when compared to the other third-placed nations.

Reaching the knockout stages will be the aim for Page, and that is certainly achievable, but we can see Switzerland joining Italy in the last 16 and Turkey snapping up third spot.

VERDICT: Fourth in Group A body check tags ::

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