Rob Page takes charge of the biggest game of his career on Monday as Cymru open their World Cup campaign against the United States, but he still may allow himself time for some reflection as it was against the same opposition two years ago this month that he managed his country for the very first time.
While the world will be watching the events unfold at the Al Rayyan Stadium, a low-key goalless friendly against the United States was played in Swansea behind closed doors back in November 2020. Stepping up from his role as assistant manager, few realised the significance of this starting point in a tenure that would eventually end a long and painful 64-year wait to reach the finals of the FIFA World Cup.
The journey that has taken Cymru to Qatar has been well-documented in recent weeks, and there has been deserved recognition and praise for those that have influenced and inspired what has finally become reality. But the focus for Page and his squad now is very much on the next match without distraction. Final preparations will fine-tune the tactical approach, and the emotion of the occasion will be handed over to the Red Wall.
Midfielder Joe Allen played a key role in the qualifying campaign and he will be given every opportunity to make himself available for the opening Group B match as he continues his intensive recovery from a hamstring injury that has kept him sidelined since the middle of September. Encouragingly, Allen seems set to play some part in the group stage games, and Page has no other immediate fitness concerns.
Meanwhile, United States manager Greg Berhalter is confident that Luca de la Torre and Weston McKennie (pictured below) will be fit and available for the opening match following recent injury scares, with the latter set to play an important part in midfield. “Weston McKennie’s prognosis is that he’s going to come to the World Cup in a good way,” said Berhalter about the Juventus star when announcing his squad last week.
“I think, at least to the American media, Wales is underrated,” the manager explained. “When I look at their squad it’s basically a Premier League squad. It’s a really good squad, a formidable squad that has been in international competition before and know what it’s like. It’s going to be a very difficult game and I think they’re going to be a highly-competitive team. We know that we’re in for a battle for sure.”
Page’s Cymru will have a mutual respect for the United States when the two sides meet on Monday, but there will be no fear as they embark on this latest chapter in Welsh football history. Those wearing the dragon on their shirt will experience what generations of talented players failed to realise during the years of constant heartbreak and coming so close yet ending up so far away from competing on the world stage.
“Our goal obviously is to get out of the group and get as far as we can,” said Cymru captain Gareth Bale to the media this week. “We know we have to take each game as it comes just from having the experience of the two previous Euros. We know what success is in terms of what we want to do, but all we can do is give 110% and everyone in the nation will be proud of us just for doing that.”
The United States lit up the Empire State Building in New York with their colours of red, white and blue for their squad unveiling, while the Cymru flag flew proudly from the top of the Tylorstown Welfare Hall in the Rhondda as Page returned home for what was an emotional moment in his successful time as manager. The contrast of the announcements could not have been bigger, but the players named will step onto the field as equals on Monday, and both will be confident of making a positive start to the tournament.