Now that the domestic season has come to a close, its time to focus on the upcoming Euro 2020 Qualifiers, with crucial matches against Croatia and Hungary coming up over the next few days. In this article, we preview the first match against Croatia, looking at the two squads, potential line-ups and the two sides recent form.
Wales are in a good position heading into the matches, with a 1-0 victory against Slovakia in the first match of Qualifying meaning they are joint top of the group with Slovakia, despite being one of only two teams that have played a single match, with everyone other than Azerbaijan having played two matches. Recently, Wales have impressed with their exciting attacking play, and it will be interesting to see how the side deals with a Croatia side that have plenty of talent at their disposal. Wales will be looking to build on the win against Slovakia, after a disappointing end to the Nations League, after they were beaten by Denmark.
However, the Croatia heading into the match, is one that have not been at top-form in recent matches. In the two European 2020 Qualifying matches they’ve played in so far, they struggled to a 2-1 victory against Azerbaijan, before suffering a shock 2-1 loss to Hungary. The loss against Hungary was a particular surprise, especially considering Croatia scored the opener to go 1-0 up, before Hungary came back to win 2-1. Both matches were unusual displays from Croatia, who dominated possession but were ineffectual in front of goal in the two games.
So far, this is how Group E of the European Championships is shaping up, with Slovakia currently top, Wales in second place, Croatia in third, Hungary in fourth and then Azerbaijan in fifth.
Ryan Giggs has named a strong 28-man squad, featuring an exciting blend of youth and experience. One player that originally missed out on being called up was Ben Davies, who was expected to undergo surgery, but he has since announced that he has delayed his operation in order to be fit for the Croatia match.
The goalkeepers included are Adam Davies, Danny Ward and Wayne Hennessey, fresh from seasons at Barnsley, Leicester City and Crystal Palace respectively. While it is expected that Wayne Hennessey will continue with being the first choice to start in goal, the fact he lost his place in the Crystal Palace team towards the end of last season might give Danny Ward hope to start ahead of him. Adam Davies meanwhile, will be hoping to earn his second cap after making his international debut in the 1-0 friendly victory against Trinidad & Tobago.
In terms of the defence, Chris Gunter and Callum Roberts will be battling it out to start at right-back, with Ashley Williams, Chris Mepham, Tom Lockyer, James Lawrence and Joe Rodon all hoping to appear in the heart of defence. It will be interesting to see if Ashley Williams retains his position, or whether Giggs will opt for the highly-rated duo of Chris Mepham and James Lawrence to start instead. Many were expecting to see rotation at left-back as Ben Davies was originally set to miss the match, however with him announcing his availability for this match, it is widely expected that Neil Taylor or uncapped Ben Williams will have to wait until the match against Hungary before getting a chance to impress.
In midfield, there is a wealth of options for Wales to pick from, with the likes of Joe Allen, Matt Smith, Will Vaulks, Jonny Williams, Ethan Ampadu and youngster Dylan Levitt all available for Ryan Giggs to select. Highly-rated Dylan Levitt is included in the Wales squad for the first time, despite having not made an appearance for Manchester United’s senior team yet, and many are wondering whether he will get a chance to earn his first cap.
Jonny Williams meanwhile, is included in a Wales squad for the first time since the Autumn 2017 after an impressive season at Charlton Athletic, where he helped them earn promotion to the EFL Championship via the Play-Offs. Ethan Ampadu looks like a talented young player full of potential, but while Chelsea tend to favour him as a centre-back, Wales usually opt to use him as a defensive midfielder.
Exciting attack-minded players David Brooks, Tom Lawrence, Ben Woodburn, Rabbi Matondo, George Thomas, Harry Wilson and Daniel James are all included, and the attacking talent currently involved in the Welsh setup is one of the best in memory. Daniel James enjoyed a fine season for Swansea City, that has seen him be linked with a big move, with rumours strongly suggesting that Manchester United are in pole position to secure his signing. Harry Wilson and Tom Lawrence are included in the squad following their disappointing Play-Off Final loss at the hands of Aston Villa with Derby County.
Up front, Gareth Bale is expected to act as the lone striker, with Sam Vokes and the uncapped Kiefer Moore expected to provide a different, more direct, option should it be required. Kiefer Moore enjoyed a superb season at Barnsley, scoring 19 goals in 35 matches in all competitions, despite missing almost two months of action due to a serious head injury, and qualifies for Wales through his maternal grandfather.
Midfielder Aaron Ramsey is the most notable absentee, after suffering an injury against Napoli in the Europa League Quarter Final in what turned out to be his final appearance for Arsenal before his move to Italian Serie A Champions Juventus this summer.
It will be intriguing to see what line-up Giggs goes for, as there are rumours he will name a defensive midfield in an attempt to quell the creative abilities of the Croatia midfield. However, Ryan Giggs hasn’t been scared to go for the win, and with the number of attacking options he has at his disposal, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a 4-2-3-1 formation that focuses on the side’s attacking strength. We feel its this line-up that Giggs should go for, with Hennessey in goal; Callum Roberts, Chris Mepham, James Lawrence and Ben Davies in defence; Joe Allen and Ethan Ampadu in midfield; with the attacking trio of Daniel James, Harry Wilson and David Brooks just behind Bale up front.
Croatia’s preparations for the match have been hit by an unfortunate injury crisis, with Filip Bradarić, Marko Rog, Nikola Vlašić, Ante Rebić and Ivan Rakitić all having to withdraw from the squad. If the injury crisis wasn’t bad enough, their preparations were also hit by the fact that key defender Dejan Lovren and midfielder Mateo Kovačić both joined up with the squad late due to them taking part in the Champions League and Europa League Finals respectively.
The goalkeepers included in the squad are Lovre Kalinić, Dominik Livaković and Simon Sluga, with Aston Villa goalkeeper Kalinić the undisputed first choice for his country.
In defence, they have Domagoj Vida, Dejan Lovren, Tin Jedvaj, Borna Barišić, Duje Ćaleta-Car, Mile Škorić, Karlo Bartolec, Filip Benković and Darlo Melnjak. The back four will likely consist of Vida, Lovren, Jedvaj and Barišić.
In midfield, their captain, and Real Madrid star, Luka Modrić is a crucial player, as is Inter Milan man Mateo Brozović. Following the injury to Ivan Rakitić, it is expected that Mateo Kovačić will take his place in midfield. Milan Badelj, Mario Pašalić, Mijo Caktaš and Alen Halilović are the other midfielders included in the squad.
In attack, Inter Milan winger Ivan Perišić and Hoffenheim striker Andrej Kramarić are expected to start, while either Josip Brekalo or Bruno Petković, of Wolfsburg or Dinamo Zagreb respectively, will likely deputise for the injured Ante Rebić.
THE LIKELY TEAMS
So, with that in mind, here are the line-ups we feel are likely for both teams.
WALES vs Slovakia (BBC – https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/live/football/47590931/page/5)
Dan James vs Slovakia (JOE.co.uk – https://www.joe.co.uk/sport/swansea-youngster-daniel-james-wales-224852)
Luka Modrić (Dennis Grombkowski – http://www.zimbio.com/pictures/A3-SqG_JaGR/Hungary+v+Croatia+International+Friendly/7hcjqvnN_Jy/Luka+Modric)