Wales battle through despite defeat and daft format

Dave Tickner
Italy Wales

It’s hardly a new or original observation, but this 24-team Euros format really has killed the tension of the group stage.

This could have been an epic evening of shredded nerves and joy and despair as Wales clung on to second spot despite an onslaught from a seriously impressive Italy side while Switzerland set about putting the fallen dark horses of Turkey out of their misery.

As it is, while Wales deservedly go through after what will be one of the more impressive 1-0 defeats you’ll ever see, Switzerland’s initial disappointment is almost entirely tempered by the knowledge that they will almost certainly be in the last 16 anyway as one of the better third-place teams.

To Italy’s enormous credit, the little tension that the format permitted was maintained to the final whistle as they made aggressive and concerted and unstinting pursuit of a second goal that had no significance for them but could have sent the very mildest of shockwaves through the rest of the group. Even substituting goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma late on for the sheer lols of it didn’t look like any kind of disrespect or demonstrate a lack of focus.

That was just one of the many indicators of the place this Italy side is in right now. It is a very happy place. They are a fantastic team playing atypically fun and progressive football without ever losing the defensive reliability for which they are more widely renowned. That’s now 10 straight wins without concession and 32 goals for since the last one against.

That they made eight changes to the starting XI yet never missed a beat is an eyebrow-raiser. The style and urgency and above all quality of their football never dropped and, thanks to France’s fraudulence being so ruthlessly exposed by Hungary, Italy are now arguably the team to beat.

Which is all hugely encouraging news for Wales. They were outplayed and outgunned here even before going down to 10 men after a classic ‘orange card’ tackle from Ethan Ampadu found a referee in unforgiving mood. To lose this game only 1-0 was a fine result and one always likely to secure second place despite Switzerland’s best efforts.

The switch to a back three didn’t quite work for Wales, but any comparison between this game and their performances in the first couple of games is largely moot. Any impact of a change in formation was far less significant than a change in opposition. In case we weren’t clear: Italy are really, properly good.

And while the third-place safety net removed so much of the potential jeopardy of the afternoon, second place isn’t an insignificant prize for Rob Page’s side. While Switzerland have to (very slightly) sweat on their future, the one thing that is certain is that if they go through they will face a group winner in the next round. It is most likely to be whichever heavyweight emerges in top spot from Group F. If not that, the next likeliest possibility is Belgium.

Wales, meanwhile, will face Denmark, Finland or Russia in the last 16. There might not have been the tension there could have been, but the end result is the same: Wales are off on another Euros adventure.