Stinking out a major tournament is an experience that most middling countries endure at some point and, for a long time in Azerbaijan, it looked as if Wales might be preparing for an unwelcome coming of age. All those nostalgic Euro 2016 features before their opening game of the latest tournament were fine and dandy but one wondered whether part of the point had been lost amid the reminiscing.
In France five years ago Wales showed on their return from big tournament irrelevance that there was no need for any inferiority complex; they were a force to be reckoned with. And before facing Switzerland they even had the advantage of getting an effective pre-match pep talk from their Group A rivals, Italy having demonstrated on Friday night the merits of boldness, intensity and relentlessness. Instead Wales seemed to take inspiration from Turkey as they made a sluggish, ragged start. This was not composure bred by their feats at Euro 2016; it looked more like lethargy or muddled thinking. Maybe the heat and the vast spread of empty seats sapped zest but Switzerland seemed relatively immune to those drawbacks. Wales looked like a creature from a children’s book, a dragon afraid of fire.
That was despite the fact that Kieffer Moore showed his menace early on, bringing an excellent one-handed save from Yann Sommer with a header from a cross by Dan James. One minute later Moore clashed heads with Kevin Mbabu as he leapt to meet another cross, suffering a cut that led to his precious noggin being wrapped in a red bandage. Several other Welsh players seemed to be playing with blindfolds, mislaying passes on the few occasions Wales got the ball off their more confident opponents.
Gareth Bale was but a token presence in the first half, touching the ball fewer times than any other player and doing little to prevent Switzerland’s left wing-back, Ricardo Rodríguez, from making merry down the flank.
Tactically and physically, Wales were not working well. This tournament is a big test for Robert Page, promoted from assistant to manager in November.
The laws of football, meanwhile, were left open for more interrogation in the first half when Fabian Schär barged James to the ground just outside the corner of the Switzerland box, knowing full well he would incur only a yellow card and Wales’ chances of scoring from the free-kick were much lower than if James had been allowed to continue into the area. The only just punishment for such an offence is to award a penalty no matter where the foul happened, otherwise defenders will continue to exploit the loophole, at the expense of free attacking. Mind you, Wales could have done damage from the free-kick, which Bale, in his main contribution to the first half, dropped invitingly towards the back post. But no teammate was sharp enough to anticipate it.
Switzerland should have had a penalty before half-time, too, but the referee failed to notice Chris Mepham trying to remove Breel Embolo’s shirt before the striker teed up Haris Seferovic for what proved to be a bungled shot.
Whatever Page said at half-time made no difference. Wales remained sloppy in the second half and it seemed only a matter of time before they were punished. It was still surprising to see Embolo allowed to head the ball in from a corner, with the nearest defender, Connor Roberts, clinging on to the striker but seeming bewildered, looking like a man trying to find a taxi to hail while someone stepped into one right in front of him.
By now Embolo had the measure of the Wales defenders and, having figured out they could not cope with his strength and movement, he ran straight at them whenever he got the ball. Twice he drove between Mepham and Joe Rodon, who were practically left spinning like cartoon stooges as Embolo bore down on goal. Happily for Wales, Danny Ward was sharper than his outfield teammates.
Although Page’s tactical plan malfunctioned for long periods, his chief selection decisions were vindicated. Ward, who ruined Karim Benzema’s return to international football by saving the Frenchman’s penalty two weeks ago, made a couple of excellent saves. Picking him ahead of Wayne Hennessey proved to be shrewd.
Then Page’s other big call paid off, as Moore headed an equaliser from a lovely first-time cross by Roberts. Wales had woken up and Switzerland, who lost their shape and gumption after scoring, had nodded off. It could be that Wales have grown into this tournament. Their next game, against Turkey, is set up deliciously.
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