Ryan Giggs' Cymru will make a welcome return to competitive action in September as the second instalment of the UEFA Nations League begins.
The draw for the 2020/21 edition of the competition was made back in March with Cymru joining Finland, Bulgaria and the Republic of Ireland in League B4. With EURO 2020 postponed until next summer, the return of the international game is another step forward in returning to normality after the COVID-19 crisis.
“I think it's pretty evenly matched,” explained Giggs following the draw. “That's what's fantastic about the Nations League. The players and the fans have taken it on board. Every game, there seems to be something on it, and I think that can only be good because every game is competitive.”
But the reality of a return to action will be a surreal experience should restrictions prevent fans attending fixtures. The Red Wall has become synonymous with the achievements of our national team in recent years, and while they will be with the side in spirit, the advantage offered by their unwavering support will be sorely missed by the squad.
The inaugural edition of the UEFA Nations League offered Giggs his first taste of competitive football as Cymru manager back in 2018. In a group of three teams, two victories against the Republic of Ireland meant that the side went into the final game against Denmark in Cardiff with everything to play for in a competition that proved to be an interesting and exciting addition to the international calendar.
Here's a look back on that first UEFA Nations League campaign:
Wales 4-1 Republic of Ireland - 6 September 2018, Cardiff
Tom Lawrence opened the scoring inside the opening six minutes as he capitalised on a superb ball from Joe Allen, and Gareth Bale doubled the advantage 10 minutes later with a superb strike. Teenager Ampadu set up Aaron Ramsey for the the third just before half-time, and debutant Roberts added the fourth following the restart with a fine volley. Ireland managed a consolation goal on the 66th minute as a rare mistake by Ramsey gifted Shaun Williams, and the midfielder slotted the ball past Wayne Hennessey to deny Wales a clean sheet.
Denmark 2-0 Wales - 9 September 2018, Aarhus
Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale both had chances to put Wales ahead in the opening half of the match, while at the other end of the field, Thomas Delaney saw his shot go inches wide of Wayne Hennessey’s goal. Denmark created the breakthrough when Eriksen dropped off the defence in the 18-yard box and placed the ball beyond Hennessey with a well-struck shot after 32 minutes. On the hour mark, Ampadu was penalised by German Referee Deniz Aytekin, who awarded a penalty for what he believed was a handball in the 18-yard box. Eriksen stepped up to the spot and sent Hennessey the wrong way to make it 2-0.
Republic of Ireland 0-1 Wales - 16 October 2018, Dublin
Ryan Giggs maintained his belief in youth as he named a young starting line-up for a potentially difficult atmosphere at the Aviva Stadium. Despite a scrappy and largely forgettable opening half, a moment of magic from Harry Wilson eventually proved to be the difference between the two sides. On 58 minutes, Wilson struck a incredible free-kick past goalkeeper Darren Randolph to send the visiting fans wild. An inspirational performance from captain Ashley Williams ensured Wales would maintain the lead despite a late wave of Irish pressure, and substitute George Thomas could have wrapped things up for Wales, but he was denied by Randolph from close range before the referee brought the match to a close.
Wales 1-2 Denmark - 16 November 2018, Cardiff
The anticipation of a capacity crowd at Cardiff City stadium were boosted by manager Ryan Giggs selecting an attacking starting line-up for this decisive match. It was an intense encounter and it was Denmark that took the lead through Nicolai Jorgensen. Wales has chances through David Brooks, Tyler Roberts and Gareth Bale, but it was Martin Braithwaite sparked a breathless finale in the 88th minute as he fired the visitors into a 2-0 lead after his powerful shot beat Wayne Hennessey at the near post. Wales responded in dramatic fashion, as a direct ball was launched forward to the feet of Bale. He beat the advancing Schmeichel and finished into the empty net. However, it was Denmark that held on for the win.
“I'm proud of the lads because they kept going to the end and excited me and excited the crowd,” said Giggs after the final match. “We need to learn the other side - the discipline that Denmark are so good at. I've enjoyed the Nations League. They've been good games. It's gone right to the last game for us where we could have won it.”
UEFA Nations League B4 fixtures
- MD1 - Thursday, 3 September - Finland v Cymru (7:45pm)
- MD2 - Sunday, 6 September - Cymru v Bulgaria (2:00pm)
- MD3 - Sunday, 11 October - Republic of Ireland v Cymru (2:00pm)
- MD4 - Wednesday, 14 October - Bulgaria v Cymru (7:45pm)
- MD5 - Sunday, 15 November - Cymru v Republic of Ireland (5:00pm)
- MD6 - Wednesday, 18 November - Cymru v Finland (7:45pm)
Teams play each other home and away, with the four group winners of League A qualifying for the UEFA Nations League Finals in June 2021 that feature semi-finals, a third-place match and the final. The group winners in Leagues B, C and D gain promotion and those who finish bottom of the groups in Leagues A and B will be relegated.
As League C has four groups while League D has only two, the two League C teams to be relegated will be determined by two-leg play-offs in March 2022. If a team due to participate in the play-offs qualifies for the 2022 FIFA World Cup play-offs, the League C teams ranked 47th and 48th in the overall UEFA Nations League rankings are automatically relegated.