There’s just one week now until the beginning of the long awaited Euro 2016 tournament. Most sources covering the tournament will focus on the same handful of players to look out for, usually consisting of familiar names from the biggest clubs in the world.
However, with the expansion of the competition to 24 teams, there is even more unheralded talent on display than any Euros previous. This list will pick out ten players who have yet to establish themselves as household names who could breakout into superstars over the next few weeks.
Three things we learned from Wales’ 2-2 draw against Austria
Twice Chris Coleman’s men led in Vienna against group rivals Austria and twice they were pegged back, Marko Arnautovic of Stoke City at the double to thwart Wales, who seized the initiative at first through Arnautovic’s Stoke City teammate Joe Allen, who struck a wonderful half volley, and then a fortunate Kevin Wimmer own goal right on half-time.
It was not the best of performances from Wales who were forced to battle for their share of the spoils, but a point was the least both teams deserved for their efforts and Coleman’s opposite number Marcel Koller will surely be just as happy in the circumstances given his side fell behind twice.
Here, we look at three things we learned from a battling Welsh performance before a raucous crowd at Vienna’s Ernst Happel Stadium, in which Chris Coleman’s men took a valuable point in arguably their most difficult away fixture:
Coleman susses out his best XI
Despite missing Aaron Ramsey again through injury, the Arsenal midfielder would likely come in as a straight swap for Leicester City midfielder Andy King. That said, with the Gunner missing both games, manager Chris Coleman started with the same starting XI that crushed Moldova in their opening qualifier in Cardiff, and clearly the former Fulham boss has his best side in mind and a qualification plan to go forward in their quest to reach Russia following their excellent Euro 2016 campaign.
Sam Vokes was the spearhead in attack, with national team talisman Gareth Bale alongside him supporting every time the ball came forward- the two of course combined for Wales’ second goal, Vokes with a flick-on from Bale’s long throw leading to the own goal- but more importantly the team as a whole as well as the attacking duo look settled into Coleman’s favoured 3-5-2 formation, with the width coming from full-backs Chris Gunter and Neil Taylor, and the attacking duo supported from deep by Joe Allen, Joe Ledley and in this case Andy King, with Aaron Ramsey yet to return to the fold. Attacking wise they are as sharp as ever, and a three-man compact central defence is also continuing to work wonders at the back. James Chester after a promising Euro 2016 looks to have staked his claim alongside skipper Ashley Williams and Ben Davies, with Jazz Richards and James Collins also options in reserve.
Potters on fire in Europe
Stoke City are second-bottom in the fledgling Premier League table, but those in the ranks of the Potteries club seem to be cutting the mustard in international colours, with two of them doing the business tonight.
None more so than Joe Allen, who has now netted three in three games for the first time in his career, after netting in back-to-back games for his club and now getting off the mark in this latest qualifying campaign with a superb half-volley for his country. His strike across bewildered Austria goalkeeper Robert Almer left him with no chance, and it was the least he deserved in another influential performance in a Wales shirt. He was forced off with injury in the second half, and the visitors seemed to lose their sparkle after that.
Besides Allen, his teammate in the Austrian fold Marko Arnautovic also put in a shining performance. He scored a wonderful header in the first-half after latching onto David Alaba’s long-ball and hauled the hosts back on terms a second-time when he was alert to a poor James Chester touch from a rare loose pass from Allen, and raced away to calmly dink the ball over advancing goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey. His club manager Mark Hughes, a Welshman, will have watched in dismay, and he can only hope his player who is gifted but so often inconsistent, can strut his stuff in the Premier League in club colours.
Austria’s home record tells
The Austrians were unbeaten in all competitions on home soil since 2014, and unbeaten at home in competitive qualifiers since 2012, and they seem to have hit somewhat of a golden generation with figures like Bayern Munich’s David Alaba and Stoke City’s Marko Arnautovic particularly influential in their ranks.
Their impressive record in Vienna came under threat from Coleman’s Wales, but they showed character to hit back and arguably controlled the game after their first equaliser, Kevin Wimmer’s own goal coming as somewhat of a sucker punch, ironic given Austria manager Marcel Koller’s pre-match comments that the Welsh were “lucky” to have made it all the way to the semi-finals of Euro 2016.
It was a highly-charged atmosphere in the capital with a Viennese crowd baying for Welsh blood, but to qualify for major tournaments a team must be able to gain points from tricky places, and it is another step forward in Wales’ attempt to make further history.
Koller will have been left thanking his lucky stars that Arnautovic had one of his good days, and already European Qualifying Group D is looking an entertaining affair with four sides (Wales, Serbia, Austria and the Republic of Ireland) all tied on four points after two games each, with whipping boys Moldova and Georgia joint bottom with nothing to show from their first two games of the campaign.
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Austria 2-2 Wales: Match review and player ratings
Wales led twice but were pegged back twice by Marcel Koller’s Austria side in Vienna, as Chris Coleman’s team take a creditable point away from their first away trip of their World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign and arguably their toughest away game of the group against the Number Two seeds. It is a result that will probably satisfy both managers, but for those who didn’t watch the match, how did the two teams actually perform?
Chris Coleman’s Wales were forced to deal with spells of heavy pressure from the hosts, as the Austrians set about their business with a point to prove following a disappointing Euro 2016 showing in a high octane atmosphere before a raucous Viennese crowd in the Ernst Happel Stadium. On paper, it was their toughest game in the group against an Austrian outfit that had won their last ten qualifying matches and were unbeaten on home soil in competitive fixtures since 2012.
It was the visitors however who would seize the initiative in Vienna however. Stoke City midfielder Joe Allen, who had enjoyed a fine European Championships in Wales’ run to the semi-finals and has scored in back-to-back league games for his club, was the man on the scoresheet once more, latching onto Chris Gunter’s headed pass to strike the ball left-footed on the half volley across goal and past goalkeeper Robert Almer to send the travelling Welsh support into raptures.
The lead didn’t last long though. Five minutes after Allen’s opener, the hosts were level, and it was another Stoke City man who hit the net in the shape of Marko Arnautovic, whose run evaded Chris Gunter after a lofted pass from Bayern Munich man David Alaba, before he coolly headed the ball beyond the stranded Wayne Hennessey.
From that point, it was Austria who took charge of the game and dictated possession. But the Welsh would find themselves back in the ascendancy in fortuitous fashion right before half-time. It was fitting that Austrian coach Marcel Koller had declared that Wales were “lucky” in their run to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, and his jibe came back to bite when after Sam Vokes’ flick-on from a a long-throw, James Chester’s header was parried by Robert Almer only for the ball to bounce off the unfortunate Kevin Wimmer and into the net to restore Wales’ lead.
Again however the visitors would squander the lead, and it only took three minutes after the break for the hosts ro restore parity. In a rare moment of madness, Wales goalscorer on the night Joe Allen horribly misplaced a pass, and a miscued first touch by James Chester allowed Marko Arnautovic to nip in and race clear before casually lifting the ball over Hennessey and hauling the hosts back on terms.
The equaliser was the very least Austria’s performance merited on the night, and for Wales, despite throwing away the lead twice, it is a creditable point away from home against arguably their closest rivals in the group, and with daunting away trips to Belgrade and Dublin to come, a point in Vienna will be encouraging and a vital step for Wales in this campaign.
The visitors did unfortunately lose Joe Allen to injury, who will be a doubt for Wales’ next qualifier against Georgia in Cardiff, whilst Austria gear themselves up for a trip to Serbia next.
The man of the match on the night should rightfully go to Stoke City man Marko Arnautovic. One of Austria’s talismans, he is immensely talented but so often inconsistent and fortunately for the hosts, he had one of his better games, finishing off his two goals with aplomb for his brace, and was a thorn in the side of the Welsh defence throughout.
As far as the Welsh were concerned, Wayne Hennessey probably pips it for the plaudits, with his two saves near the end of the first half proving vital before Wales reclaimed the lead. Slack defending twice let him down however as the Austrians got the point they deserved, whilst Wales, under the cosh somewhat, still came away with something.
The result sees Wales top the group on goal difference, level with Austria on four points. Serbia and the Republic of Ireland are also level with the two nations on points, and Group D is already shaping up to be a fascinating affair in the race to reach Russia.
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Can Chris Coleman’s history-makers write another chapter in Vienna?
It has been a rollercoaster few years for Welsh football. Having hit an all-time low in the FIFA World Rankings of 117th in August 2011, the renaissance of the national team began under Gary Speed, who masterminded three wins out of four in Euro 2012 qualifying. A 2–1 home win against Montenegro started the revival, with a 2–0 home win against Switzerland and a 1–0 away win against Bulgaria following, their one defeat coming in a 1–0 loss to Home Nation rivals England at Wembley. Subsequently, in October 2011, Wales had rapidly risen to 45th in the FIFA rankings. The match which followed was a 4–1 home win in a friendly match against Norway on 12 November 2011, the culmination of all Speed’s hard work which earned Wales the unofficial award for biggest movers of the year in the FIFA rankings table.
Tragically however, it proved to be Speed’s last match in charge of Wales, the manager tragically died two weeks later. The man who would step into his shoes in the international fold was Chris Coleman, but after his first two competitive games in charge ended in defeat at the hands of Belgium and Serbia, the latter a 6-1 drubbing, you could forgive Welsh football fans for thinking the revival was over before it began, as the national side failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
However, it would only be a matter of time before Coleman stamped his mark on an up and coming Welsh side. Then at Swansea City, Ashley Williams was handed the captaincy in place of Arsenal playmaker Aaron Ramsey, and the Welsh prepared to negotiate their historic Euro 2016 qualification group with Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cyprus, Israel and Andorra standing in their way. Their qualifying campaign high was a 1-0 home victory over Belgium, courtesy of a strike from talisman Gareth Bale. Their historic qualification was sealed in October 2015, where Wales slipped to their only defeat of the qualifying campaign in Zenica against Bosnia-Herzegovina, but a Cypriot victory over Israel ensured the Welsh would go to France; their first major tournament since the World Cup in 1958.
The rest is already consigned to the history books, an impressive run all the way to the semi-finals, including topping their group ahead of England and making it all the way to the semi-finals, where they finally came unstuck against eventual champions Portugal, led by Bale’s Real Madrid teammate Cristiano Ronaldo.
After becoming the first British side to reach the semi-finals of a European Championship since England did so in 1996, Wales’ FIFA ranking fluctuated to an all-time high of eighth, before levelling out at tenth. That was enough to see them enter qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia as Number One seeds in their group, their adversaries set to be Austria, Serbia, Republic of Ireland, Moldova and Georgia, as Coleman’s side look to make more history and qualify for a World Cup tournament for the first time this century.
This qualifying campaign has already started in dream fashion, with a 4-0 win in Cardiff over group winners Moldova ahead of Friday’s key trip to Vienna to face Number Two seeds Austria, who despite topping their qualification group for Euro 2016 with nine wins and a draw went on to bow out at the group stages in France. The fire has already been stoked ahead of the match at Austria’s Ernst Happel Stadium, manager Marcel Koller having dismissed Wales as “lucky” to have got as far as they did in the European Championships.
Coleman refused however to be drawn in, claiming his team handled the pressure better than bigger sides simply because they were a “good team”. By all accounts, the Welsh did end up in a more favourable knockout bracket on paper, but still had to produce to get beyond a stubborn Northern Ireland team, before showcasing some of their best football of the tournament to see of Belgium again in a 3-1 quarter-final triumph. But now it is all history, and if Wales are to continue to dine at world football’s top table, moments like this need to become a regularity rather than preciously spare.
Opponents Austria are ranked 16 places below Coleman in 26th, and opened their group campaign with a 2-1 victory in Tbilisi over Georgia. They sit below Wales therefore only on goal difference, and after a disappointing Euro 2016 where they only picked up two draws and a defeat, Koller’s men will go into the Vienna clash with an obvious point to prove.
The last meeting between the teams was back in 2013, where Gareth Bale scored one goal and assisted another for Sam Vokes as Wales ran out 2-1 winners in a friendly at Swansea City’s Liberty Stadium. The Real Madrid forward, formerly of Southampton and Tottenham, now has 24 goals in 62 appearances for his country, and Austria will be sure to keep tabs on Wales’ talisman in Vienna, who is four goals away from equalling Ian Rush’s record as the country’s record goalscorer.
Bale has already proven the difference so often in a Wales shirt. He had netted key strikes in qualifying for Euro 2016 against Andorra and Belgium, followed by direct free-kicks against Slovakia and England in France to name merely a few, and already off the mark this campaign against the Moldovans, Koller and his team recognise he can win games on his own, and will be determined not to give him the freedom of the Ernst Happel Stadium pitch as they themselves seek to overhaul Coleman’s Wales and go top of the group.
The ramifications are of course very different this campaign. Wales eventually finished runners-up in their qualification group for Euro 2016 and progressed automatically to France. On this occasion only the group winners go to Russia, with the runners-up entering a seeded playoff phase, so if Wales are to make it to back-to-back tournaments for the first time in their history, topping their group would be the most straightforward way to do it.
Their showdown with the Austrians however will be an interesting marker as to how far Wales have come. Even in the latter stages of qualifying, Wales suffered from the pretence of being considered one of Europe’s better teams, as sides such as Israel shut up shop against them in Cardiff and successfully held them to a goal-less draw. Austria, given the side that they are, are much more likely to start on the front foot, enabling Wales to come out and play their own contain and counter attack game which has proven the peril of several sides already, including a talented Belgian team on more than one occasion.
Wales will go to Vienna without Aaron Ramsey, as the Arsenal playmaker misses out for a third straight competitive game for his country with a hamstring problem. Injuries elsewhere have afflicted stand-in goalkeeper Danny Ward, forward Simon Church and Crystal Palace winger Jonny Williams. Austria’s only enforced change may be that of Martin Harnik, who has succumbed to injury, with Marcel Sabitzer set to replace him, their only change from their opening qualifying win in Tbilisi, which means talents such as David Alaba, Zlatko Junuzovic, Marc Janko and Marko Arnautovic will be on show in Vienna.
On paper, it may well be their toughest away trip of the campaign, with other daunting visits to Belgrade and Dublin yet to come, but more than 4000 Wales fans are expected to make the trip to Vienna to roar on their side, and Chris Coleman will know that his team must be able to pick up points in difficult places if they are to continue to make history. A heavy presence of Welsh support so often proved the difference in France however, and there is every opportunity that they will do so again.
Predicted Austria starting XI Predicted Wales starting XI
Austria struggled at home in their last qualifying campaign and won by a one goal margin in three out of five of their Euro 2016 qualifying games. Despite the fact such opposition included the likes of Russia and Sweden, both teams were out of sorts and this shows an unwanted tendency of struggling to break teams down and lacking the attacking quality of other top European nations.
Wales on the other hand only lost once away from home in their last qualifying campaign against Bosnia-Herzegovina and gained a credible draw in Brussels against Belgium. Coleman’s side will come into this match full of confidence after their Euro 2016 campaign over the summer, but although the hosts will be without Martin Harnik they will be determined to prove a point, particularly to spare the blushes of their manager Marcel Koller who declared Wales were lucky in their run to the Euro 2016 semis.
With all that in mind, our prediction is for the match to end in a 1-1 draw, which both managers will be happy with in a campaign where both are expected to at least make the playoff round.
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