Bordeaux (AFP) – Wales manager Chris Coleman has urged his players not to be overawed by the occasion when they open their long-awaited Euro 2016 campaign against Slovakia in Bordeaux on Saturday.
When Gareth Bale and his team-mates take to the field at the 40,000-seater Stadium Bordeaux, they will become the first Welsh players to feature at a major tournament since a 1-0 quarter-final defeat by Brazil at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden.
It will also be the first time Wales have ever appeared at a European Championship finals and while Coleman has urged the 24,000 or so travelling fans to drink in the experience, he wants his players to keep their minds on the job.
“Walking out will be something special, but we’ve got to remember that we’re not just here to have a smile and a laugh and a joke. We’re here to perform,” said Coleman, who celebrated his 46th birthday on Friday.
“Just walking out and singing the national anthem, in any game when you play for Wales, is the most powerful, emotional, incredible (thing). The fact we’re at a tournament is the icing on the cake.
“But I just want to see the players do what they’re capable of doing and enjoying it. Because they’ve earned this, so they need to enjoy it.”
Wales, who will also face Russia and neighbours England in Group B, have seen the joy that greeted qualification in October give way to uncertainty in the months that have elapsed since.
They have not won any of their last four friendlies, losing to the Netherlands, Ukraine and Sweden and drawing 1-1 with Northern Ireland.
Bale, though, had been absent until last Sunday’s 3-0 loss to Sweden in Stockholm, where he came on as a second-half substitute.
The Real Madrid forward’s return to the starting XI, as a free electron operating behind a lone striker in Coleman’s preferred 3-5-1-1 formation, will give his team-mates — and Wales’s fans — an incalculable lift.
Coleman was coy when asked whether Joe Ledley will start, the Crystal Palace midfielder having returned to fitness just a month after fracturing a fibula.
– Hamsik wants ‘open game’ –
Ledley trained with the squad on the eve of the match, along with Liverpool midfielder Joe Allen and striker Hal Robson-Kanu, both of whom have also been dogged by injuries in the build-up to the tournament.
While Wales go in search of lost momentum, fellow championship debutants Slovakia are looking to extend an eight-game unbeaten run that includes a stunning recent 3-1 win away to world champions Germany.
Jan Kozak’s side also beat defending European champions Spain in qualifying and are looking to emulate their achievements at the 2010 World Cup, when they knocked out holders Italy before falling in the last 16.
Slovakia have played two recent friendlies against teams from the British Isles, drawing with both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and playmaker Marek Hamsik expects Wales to provide a similar challenge.
“I think it’ll be a similar type of game,” said the mohican-sporting Napoli captain.
“They were two draws, but we had no reason to be ashamed of our performances. If we can put in a performance like that tomorrow (Saturday), we’ll be happy.
“Obviously they have one of the best players in the world, so we have to be really focused, but we’ll try to have an open game against Wales.”
Bale will relish the thought of running at Slovakia’s old school centre-backs Martin Skrtel, the captain, and Jan Durica.
But with slippery wingers like Vladimir Weiss and Robert Mak in Kozak’s armoury, Slovakia are well placed to exploit the spaces left by Welsh wing-backs Chris Gunter and Neil Taylor.
Slovakia’s only injury doubt concerns left-back Tomas Hubocan, who has missed their last three friendly games with a heel problem, but Kozak said on Friday that all his players were “fit and ready to play”.
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