Tuesday 20 February 2018

Welsh fighting spirit has Bale convinced of knockout spot

Gareth Bale: talking up Welsh chances. Photo: PA
Gareth Bale: talking up Welsh chances. Photo: PA

Phil Blanche

Gareth Bale believes Wales are capable of stunning England by winning their Euro 2016 group. The party line since the Wales squad met up before France is how the priority is to progress from a group featuring England, Slovakia and Russia into the knockout stage.

But Real Madrid star Bale, who is expected to figure in Wales's final Euro 2016 warm-up game against the Republic of Ireland's opening-round opponents Sweden today, is not afraid to set his targets higher.

"We're not going there just to make up the numbers," said Bale in a BBC Wales documentary. "We want to win every game that we play, we want to win the group and give ourselves the best chance. No matter who we play, we feel confident in our abilities we can win."

Bale has not played for his country since Wales's qualification for a first major tournament for 58 years was crowned with a 2-0 victory over Andorra in October. The 26-year-old missed friendly losses against Holland, Northern Ireland and Ukraine through injury, but he has kept in touch with his team-mates on a WhatsApp group.

Cardiff-born Bale came through Wales's youth teams alongside many of the current senior side, including Aaron Ramsey, Chris Gunter and David Edwards. And Bale says that special bond will give Wales an advantage when their Group B campaign kicks off against Slovakia in Bordeaux on Saturday.

"We all feel like brothers and will do anything for each other," said Bale, fresh from winning a second Champions League title in three seasons at Real. "We've all been together for such a long time and get on really well. We know each other's games and we all fight for each other on the pitch."

Wales's trip to Stockholm is their solitary friendly before the Euros, whereas England have played Turkey, Australia and Portugal in the last fortnight.

But manager Chris Coleman explained it was a deliberate decision to play just one game on the back of a five-day training camp in Portugal.

"The reason we didn't have two friendlies like other teams was that we wanted to use part of the time to remind them," said Coleman. "Players are coming to us playing different styles at clubs and we don't play a conventional 4-3-3. We play a slightly different way."

Coleman said Wales had the same policy before beating Belgium 1-0 last summer, the result which turned hope into expectation that they could finally end the long wait for qualification.

"We used the first week as training then on the pitch to re-emphasise things to players," said Coleman. "What we want to do, how we want them to work in the system. We used the week in Portugal to give them that reminder about what we need from them."

Meanwhile, Sweden captain and record scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic - who will start against Wales - may be allowed to leave the squad's training camp to sign for Manchester United, coach Erik Hamren said yesterday. The 34-year-old, who is available on a free transfer after leaving Paris St Germain, has been linked to a reunion with former coach Jose Mourinho.

The Swedes have named a strong starting team to face the Welsh and Hamren plans to use all six substitutions to get a good look at his fringe players. "My idea is that as many as possible would get game-time," he said. "That won't be the case for the goalkeepers, but otherwise it is my hope that everyone will have some minutes in their legs."

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