Wales will contest their first ever match at a European Championship when they take on Slovakia in the opening clash in Group B in Bordeaux (5pm Saturday on BBC1).
Wales made it through to the Euro 2016 finals tournament by finishing as runners-up behind Belgium in their qualification group. Results have tailed off since they secured their place in France, though, with Chris Coleman’s (pictured) charges’ 3-0 loss to Sweden last weekend making it four games without a win. While scorelines alone do not tend to matter too much when it comes to friendly matches, the listlessness of many of Wales’ performances is certainly a cause for concern.
Having said that, there is enough about this Wales team to suggest a spot in the round of 16 is well within their grasp. In Gareth Bale they possess one of the competition’s outstanding players. A first-choice midfield trio of Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Ledley is relatively strong for a smaller nation like the Welsh and their 5-3-2 formation helps to ensure they kept things tight at the back, with seven clean sheets registered and only four goals conceded in 10 qualifying matches against Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Andorra, Cyprus and Israel.
Slovakia are also set to compete at their first Euros tournament after failing to qualify for each of the five previous editions for which they were eligible. Beating Ukraine, Belarus and Macedonia to finish behind Spain in qualifying was a fine achievement for both the players and manager Jan Kozak, who has done a good job since taking charge in 2013. A 3-1 win over world champions Germany made the continent sit up and take notice last month, and Slovakia will be in confident mood after avoiding defeat in their last eight matches. With four third-placed nations qualifying for the first knockout round this time around, Slovakia will believe they have what it takes to make it out of Group B.
Wales’ Ledley, Allen and Hal Robson-Kanu all sat out the aforementioned friendly loss to Sweden through injury, with Liverpool midfielder Allen the only one likely to be available for selection on Saturday. Bale will play in a central attacking role behind striker Sam Vokes, whose main task will be to create space for the Real Madrid man, while Ashley Williams is the key man in the heart of a backline in which he will be flanked by James Chester and Ben Davies, with Chris Gunter and Neil Taylor deployed as wing-backs on either side. Crystal Palace goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey is the established No.1 between the sticks, with his club team-mate Jonny Williams – a tricky dribbler who is similar in style to Andres Iniesta – one to watch from the bench.
Marek Hamsik is Slovakia’s main man, with the Napoli attacking midfielder set to be deployed as a No.10 for his country after playing in a slightly deeper role in the 4-3-3 formation used by the Serie A side last term. Vladimir Weiss and Robert Mak will be used on the flanks, with Juraj Kucka likely to be a key figure in midfield; the Milan man has boundless energy and helps to knit the team together from the engine room. Keeping things tight defensively will be essential, with Liverpool centre-half Martin Skrtel the leader at the back.
This opening Euro 2016 Group B encounter will probably be edgy and low-scoring, with neither side likely to take any unnecessary risks as they try to plot a route into the knockout stage.
Our preview’s conclusion is that Wales and Slovakia may have to settle for a share of the spoils in Bordeaux, with a 1-1 draw perhaps the likely result.