Five things to look out for in Wales matches this international break

Rob Page takes charge of three games as preparation for the European Championships intensifies

WALES men’s national team are in action for the first time in 2021 with three fixtures over the next week.

They begin their qualifying campaign for the 2022 World Cup with matches against Belgium and the Czech Republic, with a friendly against Mexico sandwiched in the middle.

It is the last time the squad and staff will get together before this summer’s European Championships, and there is plenty to look out for and questions to answer.

Will Ryan Giggs’s bail prove a distraction?

Wales will take to the field this month with uncertainty still lingering over who their manager will be in the long-term.

As in November, Ryan Giggs will be absent from the camp as he remains under investigation due to an allegation of assault, with his bail extended last month until May 1. Assistant Rob Page will again take charge of the fixtures, but he has admitted that Giggs is still having an input into team selection and tactics.

The situation did not seem to impact Wales in November as they got wins over the Republic of Ireland and Finland and drew with the USA, but it is hardly ideal preparation with a major tournament just around the corner.

No-one knows whether Giggs will be in the dug-out on June 12 against Switzerland, but it is understood that the FAW have a Plan A and Plan B for the summer.

“We’ve got a great group of players, they are ultimate professionals and they’ll get on with business as usual,” Page said.

“I can understand fans’ concerns but at this moment in time there’s a group of staff that’s no different to November that will be taking the games and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”

The chance for more glory against Belgium

Wednesday night will be the first time Wales face Belgium since the Euro 2016 quarter-final when, with the help of a Hal Robson-Kanu Cruyff turn, they famously stunned everyone to win 3-1.

It is a match that went down in Welsh folklore and this week is sure to invoke memories of that Lille night, with eight of the players involved in the tournament included in this month’s squad.

Wales had also beaten Belgium 1-0 in qualifying for Euro 2016 and are unbeaten in their last four games against the Red Devils.

Supporters will hope that this impressive record continues on Wednesday, but this will undoubtedly be Wales’s toughest test against Belgium yet, as Kevin De Bruyne and co have gone from strength to strength in recent years.

Roberto Martinez’s side are ranked top of the FIFA rankings and finished third at the 2018 World Cup, while bookmakers have them as one of the favourites for the European Championships this summer.

The return of Joe Allen

One of those involved in that quarter-final five years ago was Joe Allen, who has been a key cog in Wales’s midfield for almost a decade.

However when he ruptured an Achilles tendon in March 2020, it looked as though he would miss out on featuring in a second successive European Championships.

Allen therefore may have been quietly happy that the coronavirus pandemic postponed the tournament by 12 months, and he returned to action with Stoke City in December, meaning he is now back to full fitness just in time.

The 31-year-old is set for his first international appearance since November 2019 and Page will be pleased to welcome him back as Wales certainly missed his presence in the autumn. Allen makes them tick and is as crucial as anybody in the squad.

Bale back to his best?

Gareth Bale has been on form for Tottenham Hotspur. Credit: FAW

One of the reasons why Gareth Bale’s loan move to Tottenham Hotspur was exciting from a Welsh perspective was that it meant that the star would have a full season of action behind him going into the European Championships rather than stagnating on the bench for Real Madrid.

For a while, that looked as though that wasn’t going to be the case. Bale played in just four Premier League games before the end of 2020 – partly due to fitness issues – and was struggling to break into the Spurs side.

However the 31-year-old has come alive in the last month, scoring six goals and getting three assists in his last nine matches, with his impact in a 4-0 win over Burnley particularly devastating. According to Jose Mourinho, Bale is “better than ever”.

This bodes well for Wales this month and the tournament in the summer, as they will look to their talisman to lead the way again. Bale’s immediate task is to end his six-game goal drought for Wales – his longest run without scoring for his country since 2010.

Chris Gunter: Centurion?

The third and final member of Wales’s Euro 2016 we are name-checking is Chris Gunter, who could reach a very special milestone this month.

The right-back became his country’s most capped male player when he surpassed Neville Southall’s 92 caps in November 2018, and has been steadily moving towards a century of appearances ever since; he’s currently on 99.

Gunter played in 63 consecutive internationals Wales between February 2011 and May 2018, a remarkable run that epitomises his dedication and character.

The emergence of Connor Roberts and Neco Williams in recent years has meant that the 31-year-old’s opportunities have become limited and he is now third choice, although he remains a popular member of the squad and one of its most experienced names.

Whether Gunter is in Wales’s long-terms plans is unlikely, but Saturday’s friendly against Mexico gives Page the perfect opportunity to hand the Charlton man his 100th cap and reward his years of service. It is just a shame there will be no supporters at the Cardiff City Stadium to applaud him.