As reading the lines of an identical script, the Welsh players have delivered the same message several times in recent days: they are approaching today’s game against Italy without ‘no pressure’ and ‘no fear “. It’s an approach that has served them well so far, especially in their moving victory over Turkey, and there is clearly no reason to change it now.
The trip to Rome, however, will provide the most severe test to date of these principles. First, because Italy is the most formidable team in the tournament, based on their first two matches at least. Second, because Wales now has something to lose. Second place in Group A is within their grasp and there must be a temptation, however slight, to hang on to what they have rather than push for more.
If Wales beat Italy, they will finish in first place and travel to Wembley. If they do draw, they will guarantee second place and a knockout game in Amsterdam. If they lose, it gets a bit trickier – although a third should still be enough to get them through. Wales are three points ahead of Switzerland, with a five-point higher goal difference. They can probably lose to Italy and finish second, provided they don’t get a beating from Roberto Mancini’s side.
Avoiding a heavy defeat is unfortunately easier said than done. Italy looked like a football juggernaut in these early days of the tournament, registering 3-0 victories over Turkey and Switzerland. They look safe defensively and dangerous offensively, and they have one of the most exciting midfielders on the continent.
Rob Page’s side will therefore expect long spells of pressure and few spells of possession. Wales took 36% of the ball against Turkey and 35% against Switzerland. This figure is unlikely to be higher in Rome.
“It’s a big challenge,” Page said. “Of course we will. We will have to suffer without the ball. We will have to do a lot of defense.”
Welsh fans are known as the ‘Red Wall’ and the feeling is that players will have to form their own wall on Sunday. Defend in depth, close spaces, dominate in the air and counterattack with style. Center-backs Chris Mepham and Joe Rodon, superb against Turkey, will have to produce another defensive masterclass. Two championship midfielders Joe Allen and Joe Morrell must find a way to slow Jorginho, Nicolo Barella and Manuel Locatelli down.
For Wales there is encouragement to be found in their first two performances of the tournament, when they have survived periods of almost overwhelming pressure, and in their defensive record up to this summer. In their previous eight competitive matches leading up to the championship, Page’s side have retained an impressive six clean sheets. Only Belgium, who scored three goals against them in a World Cup qualifier in March, caused big problems for the Welsh defense.
The caveat is that apart from Belgium none of their opponents in this series of matches had the same quality as Italy, but the fact remains that Wales are generally a strong team. The foundations are in place, on and off the pitch, and their hope is that defensive security will once again provide a platform for Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale to wreak havoc on the other end.
“We don’t want to limp across the line,” Page said. “We want to qualify in style and get to where we deserve it, which in my opinion is in the top two. We will select a team that we think can win the game. It would take something huge but we are able to do it. “
The impact Ramsey and Bale have on this team’s mentality should not be underestimated. Daniel James’ speed, too, gives defensive players the belief that they can always hurt the opposition. It’s easier for defenders to throw their bodies on the line, fight with everything they have, when they know the stars on this side only need a moment to create something special. ON the other side.
After low-key performances against Switzerland, Ramsey and Bale returned to form in style against Turkey. Ramsey’s all-in-action performance was one of the best he has ever produced in a Wales shirt, as Bale became the first player in European Championship history to create five clear chances in one match.
“We’re going to win,” Bale said. “We never go into a game to get a draw. Italy play attacking football and don’t concede a lot, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t weaknesses. We did. our homework and we think there are areas we can tap into and I hope that goes perfectly. “
With wise old faces like Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini in their defense, Italy will not take anything for granted. But they will, of course, be confident. They have won their last 10 games, scoring 31 goals and conceding none. Their last loss was against Portugal in September 2018, 29 matches ago. If their form doesn’t challenge the fearless nature of Wales, then nothing will.
Wales, however, know their own strengths and their unity as a group should come in handy in difficult times in Rome. After Wednesday’s final whistle, after the victory over Turkey, Bale gathered all the players on the pitch and told them their team spirit was “unique”. This unity, forged by a sense of adventure and reinforced by the mixture of characters within their team, seems unbreakable. The players know they can rely on each other and the coaches have a clear plan of action when it comes to their tactical approach.
Whether all of this suffices against the might of Italy is, of course, another matter. Wales have gotten into the habit of answering test questions, but no one can argue that it’s not the hardest part yet.