Gareth Bale and his Wales team-mates have started their historic Euro 2016 campaign in fine fashion. Goals from the Real Madrid star and Hal Robson-Kanu gave Chris Coleman's side a 2-1 win over Slovakia last Saturday, their first victory (and game, for that matter) at a major tournament since the 1958 FIFA World Cup.
England, held to a 1-1 draw with Russia in their opener, take on the Group B leaders next. Thursday's clash is also a somewhat unprecedented occasion for them—a rare chance for this Premier League generation to take on an assortment of familiar Welsh peers and foes in the colours of their country, rather than their club.
Bar a few qualifiers, that was not an occurrence too many of their predecessors experienced with more recent Welsh stars such as Craig Bellamy and Ryan Giggs. The current crop has the task of setting up and enacting a plan that can shut the Dragons' current talisman Bale down, and on an even bigger stage, too.
"Every single training session and every game there's definitely a Gareth Bale moment where you just think, 'wow'," Wales captain Ashley Williams told the recent BBC profile Gareth Bale: Euro Star. Former international John Hartson was similarly in awe, stating when he "is in full flow he is unstoppable, simple as that."
The Slovakia game provided a little evidence of both.
Stood in that recognisable stance synonymous with so many of his great strikes, Bale's monumental free-kick (see above) bamboozled goalkeeper Matus Kozacik.
The slight swerve did it, yet it would not be a surprise if the attacker was already in his head. The indecision seen in his goal-line positioning betrayed at least some uncertainty.
The circumstances of a back-and-forth contest meant a rampaging Bale did not come to the fore as often as he would have liked. Still, there were enough hints beside the goal of why he will be so feared at this tournament.
The scorer of seven of Wales' 11 qualifying goals relishes playing for his country. Things have been rosier with Real Madrid lately (winning the Champions League helps that), but international duty has been a welcome safe haven during more drama-heavy periods at the melodramatic Spanish club over the last couple of years.
Ex-Wales international Mark Hughes spent time abroad, too, playing for Barcelona in the mid-1980s. He is a big believer in the value of such patriotic interruptions, telling the aforementioned BBC documentary:
I always had the thought that I had an opportunity in two/three weeks, or whatever it was, to go back and play for Wales. And that always sustained me even when sometimes I was out there, wasn't playing particularly well or had a bit of press going against you—which, at times it's gone against Gareth as well.
You always had that thing in the back of your mind that said, "well I've got a Welsh came coming up," and that used to get you back on track.
That may apply tenfold for a European Championship.
Early indications are the enjoyment of the experience is already informing Bale's efforts. Up against a tougher opponent and rival in England, there is a good chance this will manifest even more potently.
The 26-year-old will already have been on Roy Hodgson's mind prior to playing Russia. Comments from the player suggesting Wales have more passion than their neighbours—while not quite in fighting-talk territory—have reminded them of the challenge at hand.
"They can have those opinions, but I don't have any doubts personally about our patriotism or desire and that's the important thing," Hodgson responded, per BBC Sport. Coleman has since played down Bale's words, via Sky Sports' Stephen Turner, but they have upped the ante.
The England manager and his players will be keen to get to resume trying to record their first win at Euro 2016. Negotiating the obstacle of Wales requires preparing for a collective that has plenty to offer, but it is understandable why Bale may be causing most trepidation.
"I don't know how they're going to cope with him," the worried former England international and Bale's ex-Tottenham Hotspur team-mate Jermaine Jenas said to the Euro Star programme (albeit prior to the tournament). "I imagine this is a conversation that most clubs have had over a number of years. Because he's not just quick and strong, because he's got the ability to hit shots from 25/30 yards, he can adapt his game to any way of trying to stop him."
A possible plan of action is subject to uncertainty over how Coleman will exactly utilise Bale, and whether their line-up will differ to his selection versus Slovakia (see below).
For the majority of Saturday's match he was granted the freedom to pop up all over the pitch as he saw fit (including a loss of possession in his own half that led to a superb Marek Hamsik run almost giving the Slovaks the lead). The later introduction of Robson-Kanu further forward led to him playing more of a supporting role.
As Jenas noted, though, Bale is capable of hurting opponents wherever he plays.
Against Slovakia, he was charging at Kozacik one moment, linking up in the centre circle the next, his quick feet and timely passing making light of the Slovaks' closing-down attempts. There were shots from distance, as well as a header from a Joe Allen cross that was well-saved by the aforementioned goalkeeper.
Robson-Kanu's goal partly resulted from a Bale run that created space for Aaron Ramsey to move into. Receiving Joe Ledley's pass, the midfielder advanced and teed up the substitute.
So of course, the Eric Dier-anchored England midfield will need to be careful not to commit themselves too haphazardly to trying to rob Bale. Of course, the back four must be cognizant of his whereabouts at all times so as not to grant him any extra help (switch off and they will get punished—see his goal against Belgium in the qualifiers).
But it is easier said than done getting the better of a motivated, sensationally skillful player in such circumstances. He would likely run any man-marker ragged, and besides, giving him too much respect could allow others like Ramsey or the marauding wing-backs Chris Gunter and Neil Taylor greater opportunities to affect things.
England's best approach will be to take their cue from where Slovakia had some success. Basically, they must adhere to the old adage that the best form of defence is a good offense.
As threatening and effective as Bale was at times, there were reasonably long stretches where he saw little of the ball. Perhaps Jan Kozak's team may have been more cautious had they not gone behind, but the need to equalise saw them pin Wales back, all but isolating their No. 11.
Even when he was involved, the limitations of his team-mates could still be seen. Passes and crosses would not reach him, or his own attempts to advance play failed because others could not keep up with his speed of thought. Slovakia got it back and promptly forced Wales back into defensive mode again.
England must respect these confident European Championship debutants. Wales can hurt them and won't be broken down without a fight.
But attack with the purpose, pace and precision they did for much of the Russia game and they will almost inevitably cause the Welsh more damage than Slovakia were able to—perhaps creating a situation where any Bale-rescue attempts only open up the game more in the quick-striking England's favour.
"We have got great players, we ain't no mugs,'' a similar-minded striker Harry Kane said, per ESPN FC. "We are a good side so we have got to go out there, play our game, put in a good performance, play our football and hopefully go out there and get a result.''
When the inevitable spells of Welsh possession occur, England cannot stand off them like they mostly did against Russia. Obviously they should not go all-guns-blazing in hunting the ball, but greater engagement in the midfield areas is a must if they are to stop Coleman's men establishing momentum.
Hodgson's belief in shape and its potential to make England hard to break down is admirable. After a point, though, it can become too limiting and give way to the over-cautiousness a talent like Bale will pick apart.
The world's most expensive player is rightly feared. However, there is only so much he can do alone.
England need to believe they are a better team than a less well-equipped Wales. Express and earn that superiority and they may just take Bale out of the game.