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When England exited Euro 2016 via an ignominious defeat to Iceland, Wales took great delight in their misery, celebrating at their hotel base in Dinard. A video of the Wales squad jumping for joy and huddling together as England’s players fell to the floor like dominoes went viral.
England’s relegation from the Nations League is incomparable and neither were Wales, 67 days out from when they collide in their final Group B match at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, ever going to contemplate a repeat of those scenes, which, it is fair to say, received mixed reviews.
It is five long games without a win for England and four for Wales but the latter undeniably find themselves in a good spot before hosting Poland on Sunday, encouraged by a strong second-half performance in Thursday’s defeat to Belgium, No 2 in the Fifa rankings. Then there is the small matter of a trip to Qatar and a first World Cup in 64 years on the horizon.
Wales’ first Group B opponent, the USA, have also not convinced of late and slipped to defeat to Japan on Friday but Gareth Bale is not reading too much into their rivals’ recent hiccups. “People will up their games, players might not be playing well but in two months’ time they’ll be playing better,” Bale, the Wales captain, says.
Rob Page, the Wales manager, watched England’s defeat to Italy with his staff in Cardiff and is flying to Spain next week to watch USA take on Saudi Arabia in their final warm-up match. Ultimately, however, he knows Wales have to get their own house in order. “I’m surprised in how the group has panned out,” Page says of England, who entertain Germany at Wembley on Monday.
“They were up against a very good Italian team who could have scored a couple of more goals. You’re always surprised when England don’t do so well because of the expectations they have put on themselves over the years but that’s for them to worry about and deal with now.
“We’ve got a job in hand that we’re fully focused on. As soon as the final whistle has gone we’ll be preparing for the World Cup.”
Page will be forced into at least two changes for Poland’s visit, with Ethan Ampadu and Chris Mepham both suspended, while Bale is likely to return to the starting lineup. Page insists there will be no surprises when the teams are read aloud an hour before kick-off at the Cardiff City Stadium.
Bale is yet to complete 90 minutes since joining Los Angeles FC in the summer but feels he is slowly edging towards peak condition. “I am closer than I have been in the last few years, for sure,” Bale says. “It’s about playing minutes and games and I’m starting to do that a lot more often now.
“The more I play, the fitter I’ll get. Hopefully, I can start to peak and get stronger and stronger as quickly as possible.”
Bale’s condition has been aided by regular dialogue between LAFC and the Football Association of Wales’ medical team. The Wales physio, Sean Connelly, was invited to Los Angeles within a week of Bale moving stateside. “They have a great relationship and they’ve both reached out to each other to make sure communication is good and what I’m doing are the correct things and not things I shouldn’t be doing,” Bale says.
“The FAW have always done what’s best for me and what I need so I suppose it’s a good thing they’ve got a great relationship already.”
Wales are bottom of Nations League Group 4 League A and must beat Poland to stay in the top tier. The obvious caveat to their position is that they were playing with one hand tied behind their back in June because what proved to be a historic World Cup playoff win over Ukraine understandably took precedence. That Wales were so disappointed with a slender defeat in Brussels shows the confidence in the camp.
“We are playing against big teams every week now and we’re always competing with them,” Bale says. “We’re always in the games and that can only be a testament to us. We’re definitely on the right trajectory, we’re definitely improving and that is the direction we want to continue to go in.”