At the final whistle, Wales’s players and staff went on a lap of appreciation amid a cheery chorus of Frankie Valli’s Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, an unofficial fans’ anthem since the 90s. The hearty send-off did not marry with a humdrum stalemate against a team ranked 66 in the world but the result was always going to be worthless and, with all of the cavalry through unscathed, now it is destination Azerbaijan, the European Championship on the horizon.
Aaron Ramsey started his first Wales game since October and Gareth Bale was a late substitute but a largely experimental side struggled to penetrate Albania for long spells. One of the biggest pluses was Ramsey shaking off a kick to the shin that left him grounded seconds into the second half. “The positive is there’s no injuries,” said the interim manager, Robert Page.
The half-time arrival of Kieffer Moore provided a welcome focal point and for Page deciding whether to stick or twist with playing a false nine, a role Ramsey assumed without much joy during an alarmingly pale first half, will surely be one of the decisions he will mull over on Monday’s flight to Baku, where Wales take on Switzerland in their Euro 2020 opener on Saturday. “We’ll have a look back at it again, but it’s horses for courses,” Page said. “I’ve been pretty set [on my starting XI v Switzerland] for a while now.”
It was hardly a sparkling performance but Ramsey, Ben Davies and Joe Allen all managed to add to their match fitness, while Neco Williams, who came closest to a late goal with a swerving strike from 20 yards, was also able to start after the Football Association of Wales cleared with Fifa that he could play following a red card in Wednesday’s defeat to France. This, despite no dismissals, was a far spikier friendly contest. “Even Jonny Williams was making some tackles in the centre of midfield,” said Page, smiling.
The returning “Red Wall” were spread around all four sides of this stadium but 6,500 supporters nevertheless produced a rousing rendition of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau before kick-off. The first-half performance that followed was flat. They lacked thrust going forward and defensively Wales were too easily flustered, with Chris Mepham, one of three players to start both this game and the defeat in Nice in midweek, among those that appeared vulnerable. The Albania striker Rey Manaj easily shook off the Bournemouth defender after finding space between Mepham and Davies but blasted over.
Page had hinted at using Ramsey further forward and he fielded the Juventus midfielder as a false 9, a tactic Wales look increasingly likely to adopt against Switzerland in favour of a traditional striker, barring a late change of heart. Harry Wilson shone in that role against Belgium in March and played there in midweek but Ramsey appeared lost and ended up gravitating towards more familiar midfield surroundings. Now and then Ramsey floated into pockets of space but his teammates were not on the same wavelength.
The first real sight of goal came when David Brooks picked out Ramsey from the left, with the latter flicking an effort off target. No wonder there was such a hearty reception for Moore as the striker warmed up midway through the first half and, unsurprisingly, Page tweaked things at the interval, introducing the Cardiff striker in place of Ethan Ampadu, another player who looked rusty.
How Ramsey benefited from the arrival of Moore, a much-needed figurehead. Before departing the pitch on the hour mark, he dropped into the No 10 position he calls home. Then came Bale to the warmest of ovations with 19 minutes to play. It was his name on supporters’ lips after just 52 seconds. “Viva Gareth Bale,” they sang. Then it was “Wales, Golf, Madrid”, a nod to the infamous flag that irked those in Spain. One of Bale’s first acts was to send a delicious arcing cross into the box for Moore, who glanced a header at Gentian Selmani in the Albania goal. Nonetheless, Moore gave Bale the thumbs-up and Wales tried to finish with a spring in their step.