The vivid memory of the Euro 2016 fairytale contrasts with testing circumstances for Wales as they prepare for their second international tournament in five years.
After manager Ryan Giggs was charged with assault, the Welsh FA swiftly appointed Robert Page for this summer’s tournament.
And the 46-year-old has overseen an encouraging start in relief of Giggs, winning four out of six with their only loss coming against the No 1 side in the world Belgium.
Page has had a calming effect on his side and admits there is an element of relief at the “clarity” surrounding his role ahead of the first game on 12 June.
“They’re difficult circumstances. There’s no hiding away from that but it is what it is,” said Page. “It’s been difficult but now there’s clarity with the situation - for players, supporters, the FAW. Over the previous two camps, the boys have reacted in a positive way and they’ve not been affected by it whatsoever. It’s continuity that the players want.”
Wales have already shown they are trending in the right direction after edging out Slovakia and Hungary to finish three points behind Croatia in qualification.
And although there is no hiding away from the difficulty in escaping the group, the recent breakout form of talisman Gareth Bale provides genuine optimism. The Tottenham forward could be entering his final international tournament at the peak of his powers, with match-winning displays against Southampton and Sheffield United ensuring the Dragons still possess that rare luxury of a genuine superstar.
His minor role under Jose Mourinho also allows the 31-year-old to enter the tournament fresh, though any success for Wales will require the next generation of talent to continue developing.
Dan James, Ethan Ampadu, Harry Wilson, Neco Williams and Joe Roden provide an exciting core for the present and future, while Page will also be able to lean on a wealth of experience from Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, Ben Davies and Chris Gunter.
Merely qualifying for the knock-out stages would be deemed a success, with Turkey and Switzerland favoured to join co-hosts and contenders Italy in the knock-out stages with the automatic runner-up spot or as one of the best third-place finishers.
Can lightning strike twice? Time will tell, but Page can at least revel in his side’s underdog status, having already seen their resilience and mental strength amid recent off-the-field distractions.
(All times BST)
11 June (20:00): Turkey vs Italy - Stadio Olimpico, Rome
12 June (14:00): Wales vs Switzerland - Olympic Stadium, Baku
16 June 2021 (17:00): Turkey vs Wales - Olympic Stadium, Baku
16 June 2021 (20:00): Italy vs Switzerland - Stadio Olimpico, Rome
20 June 2021 (17:00): Switzerland vs Turkey - Olympic Stadium, Baku
20 June 2021 (17:00): Italy vs Wales - Stadio Olimpico, Rome
Goalkeepers: Wayne Hennessey (Crystal Palace), Danny Ward (Leicester City), Adam Davies (Stoke City).
Defenders: Tom Lockyer (Luton Town), Ben Davies (Tottenham), Joe Rodon (Tottenham), Chris Mepham (Bournemouth), Chris Gunter (Charlton Athletic), Rhys Norrington-Davies (Sheffield United), Neco Williams (Liverpool), Connor Roberts (Swansea City), Ben Cabango (Swansea City).
Midfielders: Joe Allen (Stoke City), Joe Morrell (Luton Town), Ethan Ampadu (Chelsea), David Brooks (Bournemouth), Matthew Smith (Manchester City), Jonny Williams (Cardiff City), Aaron Ramsey (Juventus), Dylan Levitt (Manchester United), Rubin Colwill (Cardiff City).
Forwards: Kieffer Moore (Cardiff City), Harry Wilson (Liverpool), Gareth Bale (Real Madrid), Tyler Roberts (Leeds United), Dan James (Manchester United).
Ones to watch
Star man: Gareth Bale (Tottenham)
It’s been a rollercoaster year for Bale, who struggled to make an impact early on under Jose Mourinho, but he’s found his feet of late and is timing his return to form perfectly for Wales, in what could be his last international tournament at the peak of his powers. The nostalgia of Euro 2016 lingers and Bale will be desperate for one final chapter to what has been a glittering career.
Breakout talent: Ethan Ampadu (Sheffield United/Chelsea)
There’s an interesting role for Liverpool youngster Neco Williams as a wing-back in Robert Page’s 3-4-3, but Ampadu, in a two, will be a fascinating watch, particularly with Thomas Tuchel utilising the same system to such good effect at Stamford Bridge. If Wales are to enjoy success this summer, then Ampadu will have to shine and provide the base for an exciting front three to hurt teams on the break.
Robert Page has dealt with the difficult circumstances admirably, but this testing group will be tough to overcome, though I still expect Wales to push all three group opponents, even if ultimately the Welsh finish bottom of the group.
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