Wales Euro 2020 reporter notebook: Rob Page has fostered a club mentality, but

Wales are stepping up their preparations for Euro 2020 having arrived in Azerbaijan ahead of their opening two group games.

Rob Page’s side play three Group A games in nine days, starting with Switzerland on June 12 in Baku. They also face Italy and Turkey.

Gareth Bale’s return to form towards the end of the Premier League season is a good omen for Wales, who reached the semi-finals in 2016 and will need their captain at his thrilling best if they are to replicate that achievement.

But what of the rest of the squad?

Sky Sports News reporter Geraint Hughes tells the Sky Sports Football Euros podcast how he thinks Wales will fare at Euro 2020, Page’s impact and his selection dilemmas ahead of the tournament.

Listen to the Sky Sports Football Euros Podcast on: Spotify | Apple | Castbox

What’s the mood like in the camp?

“There’s definitely a sense of excitement as major tournaments for Wales don’t come around too often. It was 58 years between the 1958 World Cup and Euro 2016, so the country doesn’t take things like this for granted. There is a simmering confidence that isn’t born of arrogance, but just based on the ability within the squad.

“They are a little bit more than Gareth Bale. Aaron Ramsey is another obvious name but there are some really exciting young players and these Championships could be a breakthrough for them. Dan James and Joe Rodon have big roles to play, and we’ll see just how good they really are.

“I feel Rodon will be paired up in a defence with Ben Davies, who is so experienced and consistently good. There’s some real pace in this Welsh side, but surprise and excitement is tempered because they were at the Euros five years ago. They’re not arrogant enough to think they’re going to waltz it through to the semi-finals again and they know they will have to earn it, but there is a belief in their ability.

“I think they probably know more what they can do on the pitch now than perhaps we do, as the warm-ups against France and Albania didn’t really answer questions other than formation and selection dilemmas. Speaking to the players, they’re really excited. It’s like being away with a club team – they’re smiling and they’re happy as a bunch of mates. This is a completely different environment to England.

“I’ve previously covered three World Cups with England, and it’s not necessarily the most pleasant experience. It’s a far more relaxed and respectful environment in which to work with Wales, and through that you can get a good understanding of their ambition. They’ll be deeply annoyed if they do not get out of the groups. Whether they do that in first, second or third is debatable.

“But they’d be devastated if they don’t get through as they can see themselves getting a result against all three of the sides they’re set to play. Wales are viewed very differently to the way they were five years ago in France. Speaking to colleagues in Italy and Germany, there’s a bit more of a fear factor about Wales – and it doesn’t all revolve around Gareth Bale.

“It’s the pace they have – Neco Williams, James – their ability to counter-attack against ageing sides. It’s something that teams doing their analysis on Wales have really picked up on. Teams certainly feel they could concede so trying to keep a clean sheet is more challenging than it once was.”

‘Page has fostered a club environment’

“It’s not how Rob will have envisaged being in charge. He was assistant to Ryan Giggs and for reasons that have been well documented, Giggs has a court appearance coming up next year and it was decided that it was best if he stepped aside.

“It’s key that Robert Page isn’t being called the caretaker manager – he is the absolute number one and the players know him as he was part of the coaching set-up.

“He’s one of the nicest people you could meet, but I wouldn’t cross him and that’s the level of respect that I believe he’s got from the players. He’s fostered a club environment and the players enjoy each other’s company.

“He’s hands-on and part of the training, but the players know the boundary. You can physically see that amount he puts into the job. When I interview him on pitchside after a game, he’s ashen-faced as he’s put every ounce of energy into managing Wales. The players know that he’s giving everything and is leaving no stone unturned.

“What could’ve been a very tricky assimilation for Rob given the circumstances surrounding Giggs, it’s to his credit that there isn’t a problem. Albert Stuivenberg, who works alongside Mikel Arteta at Arsenal, is a big part of the set-up and Tony Strudwick (head of performance), goalkeeping coach Tony Roberts and the medical team at the FAW is incredible.

“No Welsh player during this entire pandemic has tested positive for Covid and they’ve been very stringent from the word ‘go’ and everything stems from there. It’s all planned meticulously and Page’s results since taking over have been fantastic. He’s as hard as nails but his attention to detail is remarkable.”

What are Page’s selection issues?

“Five years ago, it felt like the team picked itself. You knew roughly the starting XI, but this time around I don’t even know what the formation is going to be. Wales usually start with a back three with wing-backs, but they can play with a back four. When they go down this route, they tend to play with Kieffer Moore.

“I still feel Wales will go with Wayne Hennessey in goal, while I do believe it will be a back three of Rodon, Davies and Ethan Ampadu. He’s never started in that position for Wales, but he’s done it a lot for Sheffield United.

“This allows Connor Roberts and Neco Williams to play as wing-backs and I feel it will be Joe Morrell and Joe Allen in midfield with Bale, Ramsey and James as the front three but the most difficult thing was finding a way of getting Ramsey into the side – and I can’t believe I’m saying that! Page could decide to go to a back four, so he’s got that flexibility.

“Whatever the formation, they rarely end a game in the same formation thay started with. They have players who can move around to fit a system depending on the state of the game, and there are more players of the ability to represent Wales than there were five years ago.

“It’s a good headache for Rob Page to have, and he knows it – starting with the goalkeeper as Danny Ward has been in great form recently. Hennessey has the experience and he knows all the players.”

What difference will the travel make?

“You really do feel like you’re miles away from anywhere here – which we are. It’s a seven-and-a-half-hour flight to Baku, whereas Wembley is just down the road for England and Hampden Park is home from home for Scotland.

“Wales haven’t got that and they’re not going to get huge domestic support from Welsh fans as it’s difficult to get here given the cost, the time, the PCR checks, visas, tickets and hotel costs are extortionate.

“The hope was that around 1,000 fans could make the trip around a month ago, but I think we’re looking at 200 max hardy souls who will make the trip here for the Swiss game. Those who do are likely to stay on for the Turkey game, which will be very different because the Turkish border is not a million miles away from Azerbaijan.

“As Uefa are allowing the Baku Olympic Stadium to be at half capacity, I’m expecting around a 30,000-plus attendance for that game and the majority of the supporters will be Turkish.

“We remember the passionate ‘Red Wall’ in France in 2016 when Wales travelled in ridiculous numbers, thinking of the group game in Bordeaux. The support was definitely a factor in Wales doing so well last time, so it’s going to be different.

“What everyone has got used to has been playing behind closed doors, and the players will have to go in with the same mentality of just enjoying the silence and channel it. They won’t have what England and Scotland have got.”

How do you assess Wales’ chances?

“If you look at the FIFA world rankings, there is very little between the four nations and if all four played each other on a one-off basis, you wouldn’t be too surprised with any result.

“Group F is seen as the ‘Group of Death’ but this one is tough. Switzerland are a decent side and will be high press – that’s why they had the friendlies with France and Albania. If you don’t qualify, you don’t deserve to go through as it’s never been easier to reach the last 16 given the format. One win is probably going to get you through, and that’s why the Switzerland game is so crucial for Wales.

“The momentum and confidence it would bring will be vital, thinking of how everything changed off the back of the win against Slovakia last time. The players felt 10 feet tall, and the same could happen again if they beat Switzerland. You don’t really want to be going to Rome in the last round needing to get a result. They are eminently capable of getting a win and a draw out of the Swiss and Turkey games.

“I expect and they expect Wales to qualify.”

Sky Sports Football Euros Podcast: Gary Neville on England’s chances, why France are favourites, and how Euro 2020 can lift the nation

Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville (5:07) joins Peter Smith on the Sky Sports Football Euros Podcast to build up to the big Euro 2020 kick-off. Neville has his say on England’s strengths and weaknesses, what they’ll need to do to beat favourites France to the title, and how this talented young group of England players can raise the spirits of the entire nation.

During the podcast, we also get the lowdown on how Scotland and Wales (22.54) are shaping up from the Sky Sports News reporters following their campaigns, Charles Paterson and Geraint Hughes. Plus Valentina Fass from Sky Italy and Uli Kohler from Sky Germany (56.39) give us the view from the continent on how their own nations are looking.

Sky Sports deputy football editor Kate Burlaga and football writer Ben Grounds will also be sharing their top tips for the tournament, including who will be lifting the trophy on July 11 – and which players will light up the tournament (1.09:35).

Listen to the Sky Sports Football Euros Podcast on: Spotify | Apple | Castbox

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