Wales have not won one of the four friendly internationals they have played since qualifying for Euro 2016. Slovakia have lost just two of their last 12 fixtures over the last 12 months and are unbeaten in eight matches. Wales are eight places above their opponents in the first match in Group B in the FIFA rankings but on current form a draw would be a good result and that is the most likely outcome of the meeting in Bordeaux on Saturday.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic destroyed Wales when helping Sweden beat them 3-0 in their last outing before the start of the Euros. Clearly that player is a world class talent but no team can rely on one individual and Sweden are below Slovakia in the FIFA standings. Wales did not have one shot on target and the introduction of Gareth Bale after 64 minutes did not change the course of the match. Sweden found the net three times from six shots on target.
The Wales manager, Chris Coleman, would say form in non-competitive matches does not concern him and the players’ focus is on Wales’ first match in a tournament since 1958. The expansion of the Euros from 16 to 24 teams has helped Wales qualify this time and with four third placed sides progressing to the knockout stages avoiding defeat against Slovakia would not be the end of the world. A win would set Wales up for the pseudo home international against England in their second fixture.
Wales and Slovakia have only met in two full internationals which produced 13 goals. They played in qualifying for Euro 2008 so the form is irrelevant. Slovakia won the first meeting in Wales 5-1 but lost the reverse fixture at home 5-2. There are no survivors from the Welsh squad for that campaign and eight years is a long time in international football. The latest world rankings suggest a close match and the recommendation is to bet on a draw and less than three goals. With some talent on the picture there should be goals so 1-1 is a potential correct score.
Wales finished second to Belgium in qualifying for Euro 2016 but beat them at home and drew in Belgium. Coleman’s side scored just 11 goals in 10 qualifiers and no team who came through a six team group to make France scored fewer. The plan was always to keep things tight and let Bale do the business. The most expensive player ever scored seven of those goals and only Aaron Ramsay scored more than once. The English based players may be distracted by playing England but Wales’ destiny will be decided by how they fare against Slovakia and Russia.
Bale is the most influential player in the squad but overall the side had poor statistics for shot ratios and defended badly at set-plays in recent friendlies. Greece showed at Euro 2004 that a well organised defence, committed midfield and the habit of taking advantage of a small number of chances can bring success. However, as potential favourites Wales must take the initiative against Slovakia who are capable of winning this fixture. If Wales lose this match even third place may be beyond them. The pressure to get something against England would then be heightened.
Slovakia started the qualifying campaign with six wins and during that run beat Spain at home. They finished second behind the winners of the last two Euros and were too good for Ukraine, Belarus, Luxembourg and Macedonia. There are some international lightweights in that group but Slovakia eventually only lost twice in qualifying over 10 matches, scoring 17 goals and conceding eight. That record was enough to earn qualification for the finals of the European Championships for the first time.
Wales and Slovakia may a similar game based on a strong defensive and midfield unit and playing on the break. Slovakia had just 45% of possession in qualifying and Wales shared the ball exactly 50/50 with their opponents. Slovakia are favourites to finish bottom of their group but that might be a wrong assessment. The meeting of two counter-attacking sides in this opening fixture will be tight so Wales should be opposed in the match result market by covering Slovakia and the draw.