When the latest FIFA World Rankings were released last week, Wales found themselves in uncharted territory – 10th in the world and above the likes of Spain, Italy, France and Chile. Whether Wales should be quite that high is of course up for debate, but one thing is for certain, Chris Coleman and his men and riding on the crest of wave and heading towards their first major tournament for nearly 50 years after an unbeaten start to their Euro 2016 campaign.
Things don’t change overnight, but Wales’ recent rise has been remarkable. Languishing at 117 in the world just four years ago, the Dragons have steadily gained momentum and positions as results have started to improve under the late Gary Speed and now Coleman. There are of course a plethora of reasons for Wales’ rise but the importance of Gareth Bale cannot be underestimated. Often chastened during his two years to date at the Bernabeu, every time he pulls on a Welsh jersey, Bale shows the world what everyone knows he is capable of with a breath-taking spell of displays for his country during that same period.
More importantly, Bale has the ability to bring the best out of his teammates. His club colleague Cristiano Ronaldo is often criticised for being too selfish but Bale has no such issues, always running hard for the team cause despite being the undisputed star man. This was never more apparent than during the 45 minutes with 10 men against Cyprus last October when the frontman ran himself into the ground for the cause. After Wales held on for victory, it was Bale who then gathered his teammates together in a show of solidarity. 5 goals in 6 games including winners against Andorra and Belgium underline Bale’s attacking prowess, but just as important was his goal line clearance during dying seconds in Brussels as Wales held on for a valuable point.
However, to attribute Wales’ successful European campaign to just one individual would be wide of the mark. Coleman, under heavy pressure after a poor start to his reign, has changed formation to play with a back three. The change has seen Wales get their best players in the team and concede just two goals in their six qualifiers to date, a record only bettered by Romania. They have not conceded a goal in 360 minutes against Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belgium and Israel, the teams from the top three pots when the group was drawn.
Another bold decision by Coleman was to take the captain’s armband from Aaron Ramsey and give it to Ashley Williams. Whilst Ramsey was more than capable in the role, the move has given Wales’ other world class player the freedom to just concentrate on his football, while Williams, a more natural leader having been captain for Swansea can order instructions from the back.
In recent years the country’s home games have been moved from the Millennium Stadium to the Cardiff City Stadium. Moving fixtures away from your national stadium may sound like a bizarre move but it is another thing that has helped Wales to regain form and confidence. Instead of playing in a half empty stadium with an eerie atmosphere, they can play in front of a packed stadium with fans closer to the pitch and a much more hostile occasion for opponents.
Of course having a successful team relies on having good players. Bale, Ramsey and Williams are complemented by a team full of Premier League players, something the country has often lacked in the past. It may seem like a small point, but having players that are used to the demands of a top European League week in week out prepares them much better for European qualifiers. When Jazz Richards was drafted in to face Eden Hazard in Cardiff, many feared the worst. Instead, Richards used the experience gained from appearing in the Premier League to keep Hazard quiet and give Wales the platform on which to record a memorable victory.
This competition for places is also healthy for the Welsh side. With the exception of Bale, Ramsey and Williams, every other player knows their position is under threat by another member of the squad. It helps to drive the team forward and is another thing that has been lacking all too often during Welsh history.
How far Wales can go remains to be seen. The country have a habit of managing to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, although a failure to now qualify for Euro 2016 would be spectacular even by Welsh standards. Once in France, there is no reason Wales can’t make an impact on the tournament. Having taken four points off Belgium, one of the pre-tournament favourites, there should not be a side the Welsh fear. Despite this, they still need to prove it against the more established European nations such as Germany, France, Spain and Italy. The current team haven’t had the opportunity to take on one of Europe’s elite yet but 2016 should provide them with this on the big stage. A victory would prove that the country do belong in the upper echelons of FIFA’s rankings and don’t just have the slightly flawed ranking system to thank for their meteoric rise.
The greatest problem Wales are likely to face in the run up to the Euros and the tournament itself are injuries and suspensions. The entire team have performed admirably over the first six European qualifiers, but if Gareth Bale or Ashley Williams were to pick up an injury, the source of goals and defensive organisation would come under major scrutiny and may be a bridge to far for the current Welsh side to overcome. The squad depth may be better than in previous years, but Wales are still a very small nation and don’t have the back-up cover of Europe’s elite.
The major challenge for Wales in the coming years will be continuing to qualify for major tournaments and establishing themselves as a recognised footballing nation. One major finals appearance in their entire history is an extremely poor return and suggests that a Euro 2016 appearance could be a flash in the pan. However, their current run has given them a great chance to become a greater footballing force, with the country now likely to be one of the top seeds when the 2018 World Cup draw is made, in stark comparison to their pot 4 rankings for the Euros. In football, there is often a snowball effect, a country that starts to do well can maintain their place amongst the elite as qualifying groups become easier, paving the way for future tournament involvement. Wales must grab this chance while they can and start to rock the boat of Europe’s current elite including challenging England as the UK’s top national team.
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Michael O’Neill confirms Bailey Peacock-Farrell is in his plans
The Northern Ireland manager has confirmed the Leeds United goalie will be a regular in the senior squad.
Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill has given hope to Leeds United goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell this week regarding his international future. Northern Ireland take on South Korea during the international break and the Leeds stopper may have hoped to be involved.
On this occasion there was no call-up for the Leeds goalie. But, as quoted by the Belfast Telegraph, he is set for a long-term future in the national team set-up:
“Conor Hazard is a goalkeeper that we have high hopes for.
“He trained with the senior squad last June. We have three young keepers in Hazard, (Conor) Mitchell and Bailey (Peacock-Farrell). The three will be rotated and managed between the Under 21s and senior side going forward.”
Peacock-Farrell has recently made his second breakthrough into the Leeds United first-team. With Felix Wiedwald out of form and usual second choice Andy Lonergan ill, the 21-year-old was brought into the first-team to face Championship leaders Wolves last week. It was the stopper’s first Leeds appearance since his last and only one, v QPR in April 2016.
He impressed in the game, winning the man-of-the-match award and retained his place for the Reading game at the weekend.
Unfortunately it seems his emergence came too late to earn a Northern Ireland call-up. Instead, O’Neill went with experienced pair Michael McGovern and Trevor Carson with first time call-up Conor Hazard. It seems the Celtic talent, currently on loan at Falkirk, will be Peacock-Farrell’s main rival for the national team set-up.
The Leeds goalie has plenty to do before he wins his first Northern Ireland cap. He has been called up to the senior squad once before, but for now will be battling with Burnley’s Conor Mitchell for the number one spot with the under-21s.
But it seems a future in the Northern Ireland national set-up is in the long-term plans for the Leeds United goalkeeper.
Fans at Elland Road will hope he can produce the sort of form that warrants a return to his national team.
Where does Andrea Pirlo rank amongst the greats of his generation?
If you asked any football fan to list the top players of the century, there is surely no doubt that Andrea Pirlo would be near the top on the majority of them.
Having announced his retirement from the game aged 38 earlier this month, the Italian has amassed over 20 winners’ medals, including the Champions League in 2003 and 2007, and the World Cup in 2006.
He has been named Serie A Player of the Year on three separate occasions as well as being named in the FIFPro World XI in 2006, and the UEFA team in 2012.
Pirlo was instrumental in guiding Milan to the 2005 Champions League final, although they lost on penalties – he stated that he considered quitting after that game given the way Milan lost the match, having gone 3-0 up, showing his passion and will to win.
He was then was voted the third best player at the following year’s World Cup as Italy won the competition.
As a player, Pirlo never relied on physicality, and was not a heavy goalscorer, with his highest tally in any campaign being for Milan in 2002/03, where he scored nine goals.
That was only his second season at Milan, having been transferred from close rivals Inter for £10 million.
His move coincided with the arrival of Carlo Ancelotti, who was one of the biggest influences on Pirlo’s development as a player.
Under Ancelotti, Milan and Pirlo won the Serie A, Champions League, Coppa Italia and the UEFA Super Cup all in a four-year spell.
In terms of his playing style, it was his passing that set him apart from the majority of players, as well as his vision, which made him into one of the world’s greatest deep-lying playmakers.
Probably the two closest comparisons to Pirlo in terms of modern-day players are Xavi and Andres Iniesta, both of Barcelona.
Pirlo nearly joined Barcelona under Pep Guardiola in 2010, but Milan refused to sell him despite the Italian’s reported interest in the move. Had he made the move to Spain, Pirlo could have added another dimension to what was already an unstoppable Barcelona side.
He, instead, made the move to Italian giants Juventus, where, despite being at the age of 33 when he signed in 2011, was still a star performer for a side that has dominated Italy for years.
He won four consecutive Serie A titles with the Bianconeri, and carried on playing for his national team until Euro 2016, albeit less regularly towards the end of his career.
His non-selection for that competition by the now-Chelsea manager Antonio Conte signalled the end of his international career, with his record standing at 116 games, 13 goals for his country.
The peak of Pirlo’s career came before his move to New York City last year, although he still made 60 appearances for the club up until his retirement.
In terms of where he ranks amongst the greatest of this generation, you could argue for numerous players to take that accolade.
Pirlo and Xavi were match winners and were crucial in any success their team had – you could argue that Xavi had the toughest task in being the man, alongside Iniesta, entrusted with transforming Barcelona into a tiki-taka style team under the stewardship of Guardiola.
However, Pirlo was unable to settle fully at Inter, leaving to join rivals Milan, and even despite his impact on the club over the years, the Rossoneri board let the Italian go on a free transfer in 2011, where he continued to thrive at Juventus.
The likes of Lampard and Steven Gerrard, as well as Zinedine Zidane, cannot be underestimated based on their contributions to their clubs, but overall Andrea Pirlo would rightly be near the top of any list of the greatest midfielders of this century.
Three talking points as England earned a credible draw against Germany
England ramped up their World Cup preparations with a friendly match against long-time rivals Germany at Wembley Stadium. Despite a number of drop-outs earlier this week, the Three Lions managed to deliver a confident performance and the match finished goalless. It wasn’t a bore 0-0, as both teams had chances to score, but a draw was probably a fair result. Gareth Southgate will have learned a lot about his players on Friday evening, especially those making their debuts. Here are three talking points from the match:
Ruben Loftus-Cheek is a contender to make the World Cup squad
It was a pleasant surprise last week when Gareth Southgate named his squad for the upcoming friendlies, as he dropped players that hadn’t performed for England and replaced them with young, hungry players with potential. Ruben Loftus-Cheek wouldn’t have expected to be in the running for an England call-up at this stage of his career. He has had a promising start to a loan spell at Crystal Palace, but this was an early call-up.
Southgate knows the midfielder from his time as Under-21 manager and his decision to call up Loftus-Cheek looks a great one. The 21-year-old was positive in possession and played several forward passes that created good openings for the home side. Although none of them led to goals, the midfielder did cause problems for the world champions and looked at home at this level. He will need to show consistency and deliver at club level to remain in the manager’s thoughts, but this was a great start to life as an international player.
Leroy Sane is one of the best young players in the world
The Manchester City winger has been wowing the English public since moving to join Pep Guardiola’s side last summer. There are some that think he is helped by the players he is surrounded by at the Etihad Stadium and that might be true, but he is a great player in his own right and he showed that on Friday. Germany threatened a lot in the first half and their best player was Leroy Sane.
The quick-footed winger hit the bar in the first half with a great strike from distance, while he also saw an effort cleared off the line by Phil Jones. Defenders know what he is going to do when he gets the ball, but it is almost impossible to stop. Sane continues to develop on a weekly basis at Manchester City and this performance showed that he is going to be just as important for his country this summer.
Jordan Pickford staked his claim to be number one
The England goalkeeper’s position has been widely debated since Euro 2016, as Joe Hart has been on a downwards curve. He was initially dropped by Manchester City and has since been sent on two loan spells. The 30-year-old has failed to look as dominant as he once did at either Torino or West Ham United and that has opened up a possibility of England changing their goalkeeper ahead of the World Cup.
Jack Butland is many people’s favourite to take the jersey, but Jordan Pickford was selected on Friday and he gave a very good showing of himself. The Everton goalkeeper made three or four great stops to keep his clean sheet and looked at home on the international stage. He took the step up in his stride and that is an encouraging sign for the future. It may come too soon for him to be the number one in Russia, but this display puts him firmly in contention.
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