Wales vs Italy, Euro 2020 Group A match, begins 3.55pm on ITV
Wales vs Italy preview
As if reading lines from an identical script, the Wales players have delivered the same message over and over in these past few days: they go into today's game against Italy with “no pressure” and “no fear”. It is an approach that has served them well so far, especially in their stirring victory over Turkey, and there is clearly no reason to change it now.
The trip to Rome, however, will provide the sternest test yet of these principles. Firstly, because Italy are the most formidable team in the tournament, on the basis of their opening two matches at least. Secondly, because Wales now have something to lose. Second place in Group A is within their grasp and there must be a temptation, however slight, to cling onto what they have rather than push for more.
If Wales beat Italy, they will finish in first place and travel to Wembley. If they draw, they will guarantee second place and a knockout tie in Amsterdam. If they lose, it becomes a little more complicated — even if third should still be enough to take them through. Wales are three points clear of Switzerland, with a superior goal difference of five. They can probably lose to Italy and still finish second, provided they do not receive a thrashing from Roberto Mancini’s side.
Avoiding a heavy defeat is unfortunately easier said than done. Italy have resembled a footballing juggernaut in these first days of the tournament, racking up commanding 3-0 victories over both Turkey and Switzerland. They look defensively secure and offensively dangerous, and they boast one of the continent’s most exciting midfields.
Rob Page’s side will therefore be expecting long spells of pressure and vanishingly few spells of possession. Wales enjoyed 36 per cent of the ball against Turkey, and 35 per cent against Switzerland. That figure is unlikely to be any higher in Rome.
“It is a big challenge,” said Page. “Of course it is. We will have to suffer without the ball. We will have to do a lot of defending.”
The Welsh fans are known as the ‘Red Wall’ and the sense is that the players will need to form a wall of their own on Sunday. Defend deep, close down the spaces, dominate in the air and counter-attack with pace. Centre-backs Chris Mepham and Joe Rodon, superb against Turkey, will need to produce another defensive masterclass. Joe Allen and Joe Morrell, two Championship midfielders, must find a way of slowing down Jorginho, Nicolo Barella and Manuel Locatelli.
For Wales there is encouragement to be found in their first two performances of the tournament, when they survived periods of near-overwhelming pressure, and in their defensive record leading up to this summer. In their eight previous competitive fixtures before the start of the championship, Rob Page’s side kept an impressive six clean sheets. Only Belgium, who scored three past them in a World Cup qualifier in March, have caused major problems for the Welsh defence.
The caveat is that, aside from Belgium, none of their opponents in this run of fixtures had the same quality as Italy, but the point remains that Wales are usually a solid side. The foundations are in place, on and off the pitch, and their hope is that the defensive security will once again provide a platform for Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale to cause havoc at the other end.
“We don’t want to limp across the line,” said Page. “We want to qualify in style and get where we deserve, which in my opinion is in the top two. We will select a team that we believe can win the game. It would take something massive but we are capable of doing it.”
There can be no underestimating the impact that Ramsey and Bale have on the mentality of this team. The speed of Daniel James, too, gives the defensive players belief that they can always hurt the opposition. It is easier for the defenders to throw their bodies on the line, to fight with everything they have got, when they know that the stars of this side need just one moment to create something special at the other end.
After quiet showings against Switzerland, Ramsey and Bale returned to form in style against Turkey. Ramsey’s all-action performance was one of the best he has ever produced in a Wales shirt, while Bale became the first player in recorded European Championship history to create five clear-cut chances in one match.
“We go in to win,” said Bale. “We never go into a game to get a draw. Italy play attacking football and do not concede many but that does not mean there are no weaknesses. We have done our homework and we believe there are areas we can exploit and hopefully that goes to perfection.”
With wise old heads like Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini in their defence, Italy will be taking nothing for granted. But they will, obviously, be confident. They have won their last 10 games, scoring 31 goals and conceding none. Their last defeat was by Portugal in September 2018, 29 matches ago. If their form does not challenge Wales’ fearless nature, then nothing will.
Wales know their own strengths, though, and their togetherness as a group should serve them well in the difficult moments in Rome. After the final whistle on Wednesday, following the victory over Turkey, Bale gathered all the players in a huddle on the pitch and told them their team spirit is “unique”. That unity, forged by a sense of adventure and enhanced by the mix of characters within their squad, appears to be 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 this will be enough against the might of Italy is, of course, another matter. Wales have developed a habit for answering testing questions, but no one can pretend this is not the toughest one yet.