In Wales Aaron Ramsey is a symbol of their finest moment, the night they rode into the semi-finals of a European Championship. Behind that comeback victory over Belgium was a peerless performance by the midfielder, with bleach-blond hair and a magnetic touch, seemingly at his peak. But two underwhelming seasons at Juventus mean that in Italy, where Wales play their final group game on Sunday, Ramsey is regarded an unfulfilled talent.
Ramsey arrived to fanfare, with television cameras following his every move in Turin and with a glowing endorsement from the then head coach, Maurizio Sarri. Andrea Pirlo, Sarri’s successor, also referenced Ramsey’s talent last December. “Ramsey was a revelation to me,” said Pirlo, who took charge of Juventus in August, after nine days in charge of the under-23s. “I had no idea he was such a good and smart player but unfortunately we have only had him at 100% on a few occasions.”
Ramsey himself spoke about trying to emulate John Charles’s success in Piedmont given the centre-forward, known as “Il Gigante Buono” – the gentle giant – won three Serie A titles in five prolific seasons at Juventus. Charles also starred in Wales’s only World Cup campaign, in 1958, although Ramsey could follow suit if they qualify for Qatar 2022 next year. Ramsey arrived in Turin to a warm welcome and much optimism following the high note on which he ended at Arsenal. But Juve have only seen glimpses of the kind of poise and guile he displayed against Turkey on Wednesday.
Injuries have badly disrupted his rhythm for some time and in Italy the midfielder has also been a victim of instability at the top, new systems and personnel. Ramsey has equally been critical of the way he has been managed by the Juventus medical team.
“He’s had a mixed time out there at Juve but we all know he’s an unbelievable player,” says the Wales defender Connor Roberts. “He showed that the other night with some of his touches, his movement and everything he did. It’ll be a big night for him and hopefully he can show everyone, the supporters and the players he plays with over there, how good he is. We already know and so do the Welsh fans.”
Roberts is not cowed by the prospect of facing Italy. “They’ve played two teams before us – their run has to come to an end at some point. I know they’ve won like 30,000 games on the trot, or whatever it is. Have they played a team with Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey in it? No.”
Ramsey has flourished when available for his country but has proved something of an enigma since that extraordinary night in Lille five years ago. He is set to start three games in a row for the first time in 16 months and a bespoke fitness programme devised by his own physio team, in conjunction with the Football Association of Wales, has helped him arrive at this tournament in a good place. He was the catalyst for helping Wales all but secure their place in the last 16 against Turkey. But, before the group opener against Switzerland, he had started only four of Wales’s previous 24 matches, including the decisive qualifying victory over Hungary in Cardiff.
In some ways, Ramsey is Wales’s forgotten superstar, often caught in the shadows of the dazzling Gareth Bale, another who turned in a magnificent performance in midweek.
“He’s had injuries in the last two years but we are thankful he’s with us now,” says the Wales winger Daniel James of Ramsey. “He’s been with us and he’s been brilliant around the place and on the pitch he’s always working hard for the team. What he gives going forward is brilliant. He’s exactly what you see on the pitch – he works hard.”
Those who have played with Ramsey speak of his bravery, not in terms of crashing into tackles – although he did that against Turkey, digging into the energy reserves to dispossess Mert Muldur just as the substitute looked to pull the trigger – but by way of always showing for the ball, volunteering to take a pass in a tight space, and acrobatically flicking on in search of a teammate, as he did so nonchalantly for Bale against Switzerland. He manipulates the ball with such confidence that there is never concern about whether it will reach its destination.
Ramsey’s tournament went from 0-60mph in 90 minutes against Turkey and now the No 10 will be hopeful of repeating the trick in familiar territory. His wife and three children are expected to be in attendance at the Olimpico in Rome. He could show Italian fans what they have too often been missing.
“A few of the lads have picked his brains,” says the Wales midfielder Joe Allen. “He’s got some fellow teammates in the squad but also he’s lined up against a lot of those players in Serie A. We’ve lent on him for a bit of knowledge. The experience of playing in a different league, with different styles of football, has certainly helped his game.
“It certainly helped what he’s brought back to the Welsh camp when he’s met up with us at the Euros. The stage is set for the likes of him. If he can replicate the performances of the other night then he’s going to cause the Italians all sorts of trouble. He’s a man for the big occasions. Italy away, in Rome, is certainly that.”