football

Gareth Bale’s arrival livens up Wales’s draw with Albania in friendly


A humdrum stalemate against a team ranked 66 in the world does not suggest any great success is on the horizon but Wales nevertheless received a hearty send-off for the European Championship.

Aaron Ramsey started his first Wales game since October and Gareth Bale was a late substitute but a largely experimental side struggled to penetrate Albania for long spells.

It was hardly a sparkling performance but key players managed to add to their match fitness in an occasionally spiky friendly, with the Liverpool full-back Neco Williams coming closest to finding a breakthrough late on. He lashed a powerful shot at goal from 20 yards, forcing the Albania goalkeeper, Gentian Selmani, to shuffle to his left and unconvincingly palm clear.

At the other end, Wayne Hennessey, who looks set to be backup to Leicester’s Danny Ward at Euro 2020, was untested on his 96th cap for his country.

The returning ‘Red Wall’ were spread around all four sides of the stadium but 6,500 supporters nevertheless produced a rousing rendition of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau before kick-off.

The first-half performance that followed was pale. Wales lacked thrust going forward and defensively they were too easily flustered, with Chris Mepham, one of three players to start this game and the defeat to France on Wednesday, among those that appeared vulnerable.

The Albania striker Rey Manaj easily shook off the Bournemouth defender after finding space between Mepham and Ben Davies but blasted over.

Robert Page had hinted at using Aaron Ramsey further forward and he fielded the Juventus midfielder as a false nine, a tactic Wales look set to adopt in favour of a traditional striker. Harry Wilson shone in that role against Belgium in March and played there in midweek but Ramsey appeared lost and ended up gravitating towards more familiar midfield surroundings. Every now and then Ramsey floated into pockets of space but his teammates were not on the same wavelength.

The first real sight of goal came when David Brooks picked out Ramsey from the left, with the latter flicking an effort off target. No wonder there was such a hearty reception for Kieffer Moore as the striker warmed up midway through the first half and, unsurprisingly, Page tweaked things at the interval, introducing Moore in place of Ethan Ampadu, another who looked rusty.

Williams, available after the Football Association of Wales cleared him to play after his ludicrous red card against France, started at right wing-back.

The second half was 45 seconds old when the arena fell eerily silent. Ardian Ismajli caught Ramsey on halfway and he stayed down clutching his leg for a minute before receiving medical treatment. Those in the stands, and presumably on the touchline, feared the worst but as Ramsey rose to his feet, there was a roar of relief and he continued seemingly untroubled.

How Ramsey benefited from the arrival of Moore, who provided a welcome focal point. Before departing the pitch on the hour mark, along with Ben Davies and Joe Allen, who are also continuing to build fitness following injuries in preparation for Wales’s Group A opener against Switzerland, Ramsey dropped into the No 10 position he calls home. Wilson, Matthew Smith and Joe Rodon arrived as their replacements.

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Then came Bale to the warmest of ovations with 19 minutes to play. It was his name on supporters’ lips after 52 seconds. “Viva Gareth Bale,” they sang. Then it was “Wales, Golf, Madrid”, an explicit nod to the infamous flag that, it is fair to say, irked those in Spain.

One of Bale’s first acts was to send a delicious, arcing cross into the box for Moore but the Cardiff striker could only glance straight at Selmani. Nevertheless, Moore gave Bale the thumbs-up and Wales went on to finish with a spring in their step.



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