A feature on the proposed friendly between Wales and Sweden ahead of EURO 2016.
There’s method in the madness, or so they say. And as if the most anticipated and important ‘Battle of Britain’ fixture for years wasn’t enough, Wales manager Chris Coleman has recently indicated that his side are very close to confirming a pre-tournament friendly against Sweden in preparation for UEFA EURO 2016. The match is expected to take place in Sweden a few weeks before Wales’ crucial opening Group B match against Slovakia, and will bring together two of the biggest stars on the European stage in Gareth Bale and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Of course, headlining Wales’ Group B campaign is the challenge of Roy Hodgson’s England, and Coleman is acutely aware of the possible problems that such a distracting fixture can have on a young and impressionable group of players preparing for their first major international tournament.
But fail to prepare, then prepare to fail, and Wales have absolutely no intention of returning from France with any regrets. In March, Chris Coleman’s side will play calculated friendlies against Northern Ireland and Ukraine, with the fixtures selected to offer similarities to Wales’ group opponents. The friendly against the Netherlands last November saw a number of key players withdraw from Coleman’s squad, and while the replacements drafted in offered an encouraging glimpse of the future, it is all about the present for Coleman now and he will be desperate for his star names to turn out for his side in the March double-header. However, external circumstances will eventually decide what squad Wales will have to work with when the two friendlies eventually come around, although the fringe players will relish the opportunity to sway the manager’s mind as the decision over his final 23-man squad moves ever-closer.
But it is the friendly against Sweden that looks set to be one of the most intriguing of all the proposed pre-tournament games, and the attention that comes with bringing together two headline names will not have been lost on Coleman and his backroom staff. Being paired against England in Group B has dictated that there will be an unprecedented amount of media focus on the side in the build-up to the match in Lens, and if the squad are to sample a taste of what they can expect, then matching Gareth Bale with the man that retired the entire country of Denmark in the play-offs will offer no better pre-match experience. Like Bale, Ibrahimovic makes headlines, but the difference is that the veteran Swede is not partial to sharing them under any circumstances. The media thrive on his each and every word, and with Wales providing the opposition, Coleman and his squad can expect some close attention in the pre and post-match press.
Which is course exactly what Chris Coleman will want between now and the summer. It is imperative that Wales enjoy the best possible preparation ahead of what will be their first major tournament in almost 60-years, and while there will inevitably be new experiences along the way, mirroring key situations in terms of opposition, build-up and pre and post-match attention will ensure there aren’t too many surprises when the serious business finally begins. Gareth Bale is no stranger to the spotlight, and having thrived in the sweltering pressure of the Santiago Bernabeu since his move to Real Madrid in the summer of 2013, his character and confidence has grown at the same pace as his status in the world game. However, Bale remains far-removed from the arrogance of the senior Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and the pre-match comparisons between the importance of the pair for their respective countries will dominate column inches across Europe.
Of course, roll forward a few weeks after the friendly and the same will be said about Wayne Rooney and England, and that is why it is so important for Wales to embrace the high-profile friendly that Coleman has made a calculated decision to play ahead of the finals. Football is a team game, but individuals make headlines, and as Wales enter a whole new world of media attention the focus will be well and truly on the third-smallest nation when the tournament eventually kicks-off. But there are also matters on the field to take care of, and for all the media experience generated by Zlatan, he offers a decent challenge on the pitch too. Competing in the finals of a major tournament dictates that if Wales are to make an impression in France and progress, they will need to beat the best, and there are few better on the European stage at this time than Ibrahimovic when at the top of his game. This is expected to be a defining tournament for the Swede, and he will take every opportunity to cement his legacy. And better teams than Wales have learnt about Zlatan the hard way.