England meet Wales in the latest round of European Championship 2012 qualifiers on Tuesday and with each nation heading into the tie on the back of an impressive victory, confidence will be high in the respective camps.
One of the key battles that will determine who is celebrating come the final whistle will be between Wales’ rampaging midfielder Gareth Bale, the latest incumbent of the Three Lions’ right-back berth, Chris Smalling, and England’s tried and trusted left-back, Ashley Cole.
Wales’ 2-1 triumph over Montenegro in Cardiff on Friday evening owed much to Bale, the Tottenham Hotspur player. Creating two goals and standing out on an excellent night for Gary Speed’s side, Bale proved the difference in separating Wales from their Eastern European opposition, with the
Although more often seen thundering down the left flank and terrorising right-sided defenders, Bale started against Montenegro on the opposite wing, his unfavoured right, but was no less dangerous. The Montenegro Coach was so impressed that he said: “Bale…could make a major contribution to any team in the world.”
The task of stopping Bale against England falls to two players of vastly differing experience – the established Cole, owner of 90 caps for England as well as countless Champions League appearances for Arsenal and Chelsea, and Smalling, an England debutant against Bulgaria and in only his second season at Manchester United, his first as a right-back.
Should Speed persist with playing Bale on the right of midfield and in opposition to Cole not only will the Spurs player trouble the Chelsea full-back as much as any winger possibly could, but Bale would go some way towards curtailing Cole’s own attacking surges. Few left-backs in world football overlap with the intensity and comfort as Cole, but Bale, a converted full-back, retains the defensive nous to assist his right-back in covering for and preventing Cole’s forward runs.
If Speed were to move Bale to his more natural left side, it could be seen as an attacking move from the rookie Coach. Switching Bale to the same side as Smalling, new not only to international football and the uncertainty of teammates rarely united but also the position of right-back, in order for Bale to exploit Smalling’s naivety, would be a bold move by Speed, a signal of his intent not to let England dominate, indeed, to give as good as they may get.
Wales did show against Montenegro that they are not a one-man team, with impressive performances not only from Bale but also captain Aaron Ramsey, Craig Bellamy and David Vaughan. The latter pair, however, will miss the trip to Wembley through suspension, the absence of Bellamy in particular placing more responsibility for the side’s attacks on to the shoulders of Bale. In a game that promises to be fascinating across the park, the position of Bale and his battle with his direct opponent promises to be most fascinating of all.