England's Rooney and Wales' Bale set to decide 'Battle of Britain'
Rooney and Bale both know that victory offers personal triumph
ENGLAND v WALES
(Tonight, 8.50pm, Singtel TV Ch 142 & StarHub TV Ch 220 - Eleven EURO)
Only four years separate Wayne Rooney and Gareth Bale, but there is a lifetime between them.
England's weary gunslinger has come to represent all that is allegedly wrong with the Three Lions.
He is the last member of the overindulged Golden Generation, the rusty remnant of a star-spangled collection of PlayStation cover models who fell for their own hype.
Bale is no less famous or wealthy, but he has slyly positioned himself as the spirited embodiment of the plucky Welsh underdogs.
Apparently, he even has more national pride than anyone in the England dressing room. He said so earlier this week.
He is willing to sacrifice body and soul for little old Wales against those big, belligerent bullies from across the border.
Bale's comments really were clever. He presented the Welsh as the adorable minnows with hearts on sleeves and tongues flapping as they prepare to win over hopeless romantics everywhere.
In tonight's Group B encounter, Wales are hungry usurpers ready to topple those money-minded giants of the English Premier League, whose passion was long ago diluted and distracted by too many pound signs.
The simple narrative suggests its Bale's pony-tailed Red Dragon against Rooney's wheezing, balding Lion King, but that wouldn't be entirely fair.
Bale will be 27 next month and recently completed a decade in top-flight football and Rooney is still only 30.
More importantly, the England captain is close to pulling off a stunning metamorphosis, by making himself irreplaceable.
Jack Wilshere managed a rueful grin yesterday when asked if he bore any resentment towards his captain, the interloper who had stolen the Arsenal star's natural position in central midfield.
Wilshere insisted there was no malice. Rooney had earned his shot against Wales on merit. He reads the game and passes better than any other candidate for the deep-lying role.
England's success now depends on Rooney's ability, along with Eric Dier, to serve as silicone, closing gaps between the lines and joining the two together.
When the skipper was substituted against Russia, the fissures in midfield reappeared. England looked disjointed and threw away victory.
Roy Hodgson won't make the same mistake twice.
For Rooney, the fixture offers vindication. For Bale, it's about validation.
As global superstars and national torchbearers, they share the same end goal. Only the journey was different.
Bale carries the burden of a small country's wildest dreams. For many jaded England followers, Rooney was the burden that haunted a nation's nightmares.
After three years at Real Madrid, Bale strives to penetrate that stubborn EPL and Three Lions bubble. He's neither English nor playing in the EPL. He's out of sight, out of mind, a talented, but neglected afterthought.
Beating England would fix that.
He'd be a thorn in the sides of Englishmen for decades, a name to be spoken only in whispers, the Dragon who slew the Three Lions.
Rooney, on the other hand, seeks not recognition, but redemption.
Fifty years of hurt make English sympathy for their misfiring millionaires hard to come by.
Every week, there are 300,000 reasons to treat Rooney like no other England captain in history, to savage him on social media and punish him for the perceived sins of a greedy league gone mad.
The criticisms are excessive and often undeserved, but Hodgson's misguided loyalty in persisting with a striker whose pace deserted him years ago only triggered further resentment.
And unlike Bale, Rooney is everywhere - an easy, accessible target to kick whenever he or his team are down.
If nothing else, his prodigious talent deserves a more fitting finale.
Beating Wales would achieve that.
He'd be the Lion who finally lived up to the potential at Euro 2004, coming full circle 12 years later and meeting, for the first time, the expectations of his cynical countrymen.
And on this occasion, there are no shackles, tactically or psychologically, for either footballer.
With Hal Robson-Kanu expected to start on the bench again, Bale should take on "false nine" responsibilities. He can roam where he pleases.
Rooney will again nestle in behind the front three. Without the scoring pressures of a conventional striker, he can also roam where he pleases.
Creative freedom offers both the promise of victory and a lasting legacy.
Bale and Rooney are already known to millions, with their faces familiar in every football city.
But if they deliver tonight, they'll never be forgotten where it matters most. At home.
England have got a lot of attacking talent, but I don't think what they've got is anything like we've got in Gareth. Gareth's on a different level — he is just such a special player.
— Wales defender James Chester
By the numbers
This will be the 102nd time that England and Wales have played each other, although this is the first time they have met in the Finals of a major tournament. England have won 66 matches, Wales 14 and there have been 21 draws.
Where 'battle of Britain' will be won
1 Hodgson must be decisive
Both Italy and Hungary embarrassed England this week.
All three nations were protecting 1-0 leads at some point, but only England succumbed to their manager's exasperating caution and paid the price.
The Italians and Hungarians maintained their winning shape and scored a second on the counter-attack.
Roy Hodgson went to the other extreme. Rather than expose Russia's ageing, tiring defence with the speed of either Jamie Vardy or Daniel Sturridge, he brought on Jack Wilshere and James Milner, and England lost the initiative.
If he opts for such a conservative approach against the busy Welsh, he'll be punished again and his neck left on the chopping block.
2 Kane not able against three
Chris Coleman's back three worked a treat in handling the threat of Marek Hamsik in the opening game against Slovakia, stepping out to stop the playmaker slipping through.
If Dele Alli is again isolated out wide, the responsibility falls on the broad shoulders of Harry Kane to beat the back three.
After a long season with England and Tottenham, the 22-year-old looked a spent force against Russia and runs the risk of burnout.
Ashley Williams would almost certainly prefer to face Kane than Vardy. Williams' tussle with the Spurs striker will give an early indication of the game's pattern.
Hodgson may be forced to intervene if Kane cannot escape Williams' attention.
3 Bale's need for speed
Wales' prized asset will go wherever the mood takes him, but he'll favour the lack of pace along England's right side, between Gary Cahill and Kyle Walker.
The Tottenham fullback isn't short on speed, but he likes to live up to his name and go on a walkabout which may expose Cahill (below).
If he could choose between the two England centre backs, Bale would fancy his chances against the Chelsea defender, who endured a rather erratic campaign with his club.
4 Alli the greatest (problem)
Based on form, and perhaps even raw talent, Dele Alli must be a contender for England's most gifted player.
But if he's left languishing on the right side of midfield again, he's caught between two stools named Adam Lallana and Rooney.
The England skipper is likely to drift ahead of Eric Dier and both midfielders have made the central positions their own, which leaves Alli as the odd man out.
Raheem Sterling would be the obvious sacrifice, but his removal would require a more radical shuffling of the pack.
Alli's only hope is to nip between Aaron Ramsey and Neil Taylor and cut inside to make a nuisance of himself.
5 Flying on the wings
Wales' success against Slovakia could be partially attributed to Coleman's bold 3-4-3, which utilised the impressive workrates of both Taylor (right) and the excellent Chris Gunter.
The wingbacks ran their socks off. But then, so did Danny Rose and Walker, particularly in the first half against slow Russian opponents.
Where the four men collide down the flanks will give a clear sense of which side have the attacking superiority.
Taylor, in particular, will require close attention. When the Swansea fullback scampers away down the left wing, he usually gives the ball to Bale.
ENGLAND v WALES
(Tonight, 9pm, Stade Bollaert-Delelis, Lens)
IT WILL BE A 2-2 DRAW
TNP SOCCER BABE AVVREY LIM JIA YI
The English drew their opening game, but I feel they are still a force to be reckoned with.
They have many experienced players who can do so much more, but most of them were on the bench or played in random positions.
Wales are also strong, and their 2-1 victory over Slovakia will give them the momentum to beat England.
The Welsh have tried to prove that the team do not revolve around Gareth Bale, but it will still take them some time to gel.
It's going to be a tough game for both sides and I think it will end in a 2-2 draw.