The Welsh reached the semi-finals five years ago when a Gareth Bale-inspired Red Wall cheered their heroes on a journey of a lifetime. While Bale and key midfielder Aaron Ramsey are still there, the landscape is very different for The Dragons.
Their preparation for the tournament has been overshadowed by a lawsuit against manager Ryan Giggs, who will be absent this summer.
After launching a qualification campaign at the end of 2019, in which Wales achieved second place in Cardiff in cheerful scenes, ahead of Croatia, but decisively ahead of Slovakia and Hungary, he has been on leave since November.
The former Manchester United star was charged with assaulting two women and controlling or coercing behavior. He denies the allegations.
Giggs is replaced by Robert Page, who had just taken over Sky Bet League One Club Northampton when Wales was having fun in France five years ago.
Page, a no-nonsense former defender and Wales captain, has been in the back room of Giggs and has overseen four wins in six games.
This type of form needs to continue as this group is malicious.
Italy have been unbeaten in 25 games under Roberto Mancini, who, with Jorginho and Marco Verratti, has put together a young, dynamic squad that will dictate the game in midfield. As is so often the case in Italy, they are crude on the defensive, with Juventus’ 30s Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini still working together on central defense. Without a world-class number 9, they have enough firepower with Ciro Immobile, Lorenzo Insigne and Andrea Belotti to be worthy favorites for the top spot.
It would be silly to exclude Turkey and Switzerland from this particular conversation. Let’s start with the Turks. Senol Gunes is back in the hotseat, the instructor turned football coach who was at the helm when they reached the last four of the 2002 World Cup. He knitted a group of relatively young, inexperienced players together and turned them into a force. Leicester’s Caglar Soyuncu is their figurehead in a now well-oiled defense, and lively 24-year-old Yusuf Yazici was the propeller in Lille’s title speedboat, pulling the strings for 35-year-old compatriot and senior statesman of Turkey striker Burak Yilmaz. The captain of this team, Yilmaz, has gotten better with age. He and his teammates shouldn’t be devalued.
In fact, it would not be a surprise if Turkey usurped Switzerland. Vladimir Petkovic’s Swiss have not changed much and merge pragmatism with some stardust in the form of Xerdan Shaqiri. Unfortunately, the little wizard has seen little playing time in Liverpool. The Swiss Achilles heel has always been on the attack, with no real scorers. Breel Embolo and Haris Seferovic are likely to lead the line, but the Swiss are still longing for the next Alexander Frei.
Wales and Switzerland face each other in the opening game and the outcome of that clash will set the tone for their campaign. Wales is the busiest – games take place in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku and Rome, much to the delight of the Italians. Wales will do well to get there five years ago. Don’t be surprised if Italy and Turkey get away with it alive.