Baku — Wales were the surprise packages of the 2016 European Championship but they kick off their Group A campaign against Switzerland in Baku on Saturday with a very different team.
Five years ago, under Chris Coleman, the Welsh, playing in their first major tournament for 58 years, reached the semifinals before losing to eventual winners Portugal.
Only eight players survive from a campaign that gave Welsh football the belief that they can compete against the bigger nations and Coleman has long since gone, replaced by former Manchester United winger Ryan Giggs.
Giggs’s assistant Robert Page will take charge of the side during this tournament in the absence of Giggs, who faces charges of assaulting two women and has pleaded not guilty.
Much is still expected of the star of 2016, Gareth Bale, despite his disappointments at club level with Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur, but it is the younger faces who are generating most of the optimism.
Winger Daniel James of Manchester United has outstanding speed, Liverpool midfielder Nico Williams has gained Premier League experience under Juergen Klopp, and Ethan Ampadu of Chelsea spent last season on loan at Sheffield United.
Harry Wilson and David Brooks are two other talents, both with technical skills, who could make an impact for Page’s side.
“It is crucial, it’s the first game and you want to get off to a good start,” said Page, who having worked with the age-group teams has a strong link with his younger players.
“They’re great characters, first and foremost. I’ve worked with them through under-19s and under-21s so I know them as people, as characters. I know they’ve got ability. And they’ve made that transition and step-up really smoothly, so that’s credit to them as well.
“They’ve just got to be themselves. Yes, you’re playing against the best teams in Europe, but we’ve proven in recent months … that we can compete against the best,” he said.
But the Swiss reached the last 16 in the World Cup in Russia in 2018 and in France two years earlier and are a solid side who will fancy their chances of progressing from Group A, which also includes Italy and Turkey.
Vladimir Petkovic’s team lost just one game in qualifying and in Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka and Liverpool playmaker Xherdan Shaqiri he has experienced players comfortable at this level.
Borussia Moenchengladbach’s Breel Embolo and Benfica’s Haris Seferovic are a handful in attack, but much will depend on Shaqiri to provide the creative spark.
“We respect our opponents — that’s very important — but we’re not scared of anyone,” Petkovic said.
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