Cardiff (United Kingdom) (AFP) – A glance at Wales’s record in qualifying for Euro 2016 reveals a glaring truth: stop Gareth Bale, and you have a very good chance of stopping Chris Coleman’s team.
That Wales are gearing up for a first major tournament since 1958 owes much to the brilliance of Bale, who scored seven of their 11 goals in qualifying, including match-winning strikes against Andorra, Belgium and Cyprus.
As the world’s most expensive footballer, the 26-year-old Real Madrid forward is used to being closely marked and he can expect to be the centre of opposition attention whenever Wales take to the field in France.
“We are seeing the greatest ever player to put on the red shirt,” said former Wales midfielder Robbie Savage, whose former international team-mates include such alumni as Ryan Giggs, Mark Hughes and Ian Rush.
“His performances have been ridiculously good.”
Wales have plenty of Premier League experience in the shape of captain Ashley Williams, the Swansea City centre-back, and Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey, but it is Bale who gives them an edge.
Manager Coleman has devised a tactical system that gives the former Tottenham Hotspur player freedom to roam behind a lone striker and he displayed the full range of his attacking qualities during qualifying.
It was Bale’s 81st-minute free-kick that earned Wales victory in a fiddly opening fixture away to Andorra and he then netted twice in an impressive 3-0 win away to Israel.
On a muggy night in Cardiff in June 2015, Bale’s coolly taken first-half goal sunk a star-studded Belgium team and he took Wales to the brink of qualifying with a bullet header in a 1-0 success over Cyprus.
– Spurs jinx –
But while Bale, who has scored 19 goals in 54 international appearances, is now established as one of the world’s most feared attacking players, it took him time to find his feet.
A product of the acclaimed Southampton youth academy, he joined Tottenham in May 2007, but injuries hampered his progress and manager Harry Redknapp was initially wary, later complaining that the Welshman infuriated him in training because he was “always playing with his hair”.
Originally deployed at left-back, Bale came to be seen as something of a jinx after playing in 24 successive Premier League games for Spurs without once tasting victory.
But Redknapp’s decision to move him onto the left wing was to reap rich dividends and in the 2010-11 Champions League, Bale produced a pair of performances that made the world sit up and take notice.
He scored a blistering second-half hat-trick in a 4-3 loss away to Inter Milan and then destroyed Brazil right-back Maicon for a second time as Spurs claimed revenge with a 3-1 win in the return fixture.
Redknapp began to use Bale in a central attacking role and it was from such a position, under Redknapp’s successor Andre Villas-Boas, that the Cardiff-born player amassed 26 goals in the 2012-13 season.
The move to Spain followed soon after, with Madrid shelling out a fee of 100.8 million euros ($114 million) that saw Bale eclipse his new team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo as the world’s most expensive footballer.
His first season was a triumph, with a sensational solo winner against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final followed by an extra-time header that swung the Champions League final against Atletico Madrid in his side’s favour.
Bale has not always been spared by the Bernabeu boo boys in the two years since, but having rediscovered his form under Zinedine Zidane, he will travel to France with the weight of a nation’s expectations on his shoulders.
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