Wales have a lot to live up to. On Saturday they get their Euro 2020 campaign going when they face Switzerland in Baku, but after their sensational exploits in 2016 they are no longer the dark horses they were going into the last finals tournament in France.
They arrived in Bordeaux for their first match five years ago with very few people tipping them to do much in Group B, let alone win it. Of course, there was the Gareth Bale effect to consider, and when he opened the scoring against Slovakia in their opening game it came as a surprise to nobody. But what developed, with that run to the semi-final via a stunning last-eight win over Belgium, stunned even the most die-hard Welsh fan.
This year is different though. Bale is no longer an unstoppable 26-year-old Champions League winner wowing the world with Real Madrid, and is instead a sometime loanee starter at Tottenham Hotspur who is the wrong side of 30 and facing the most unclear of futures. Where in France there was a peaking supporting cast around Bale, this time around there is no Ashley Williams at the back, Aaron Ramsey is now a Juventus sub rather than an Arsenal regular and Joe Allen is playing his football in the Championship at Stoke and not in a European final with Liverpool.
On the bench there has been a fair amount of tumult too. The steady hand of Chris Coleman, appointed to the role as a successor to his late friend Gary Speed, was the perfect manager to lead Wales into their first major finals in 58 years in 2016. But in 2021 they are being managed by Robert Page, a temporary stand-in promoted into the job as a result of Ryan Giggs’ ongoing legal issues over an alleged assault.
So what have Wales got going for them this time? One thing they definitely have is a young, vibrant squad. Manchester United’s Daniel James, at 23, and 24-year-old Harry Wilson, the Liverpool talent who spent the last season on loan at Cardiff City, provide great attacking pace and flair. Meanwhile at the back, Liverpool’s Neco Williams and Spurs’ Joe Rodon have stepped up in the Premier League over the last 12 months. And while his 25 top-flight games this term came at easily-relegated Sheffield United, defensive midfielder Ethan Ampadu has collected a great amount of experience for a 20-year-old.
Of course, there is only so much you can expect from youngsters over the course of a major international tournament, but that’s where those earlier names come back into the picture. Ramsey, Allen and Bale might not be able to deliver the same performance level that they produced in their mid-20s back in France, but if they can do enough to nurture and guide the new young crop of Welsh talent, then there might be another knockout adventure in this side.
In a group with Italy and Turkey, Wales and Switzerland will both fancy their chances of competing for a high-performing third-place finish at the very least, if not second outright and automatic qualification for the last 16. And while the Swiss boast well-known names such as Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka, Haris Seferovic and Fabian Schar, Page will insist to his players that there is certainly nothing to fear first up for his Wales side.
And if they can get another opening-day win as they did in Bordeaux five years ago, then we might yet get to see the Welsh Dragon flying longer than expected once again.