England v Wales: Who will have final word at Euro 2016?
|Euro 2016: England v Wales|
|Venue: Stade Felix Bollaert-Delelis, Lens Date: Thursday, 16 June Kick-off: 14:00 BST|
|Coverage: Live on BBC One, BBC Radio 5 live, BBC Radio Wales, the BBC Sport website and app.|
The waiting is over. A build-up that started in December when the Euro 2016 draw was announced concludes when England finally meet Wales in Lens on Thursday.
This is the fixture that has been circled in red on the calendar for seven months. The talking now stops and the action starts in the Stade Bollaert.
Wales have the advantage of an opening victory against Slovakia to fall back on in Group B, while England are on the back foot immediately after conceding a last-minute equaliser to Russia amid the chaos and hooliganism of Marseille.
So how are England and Wales shaping up as the preliminaries were concluded on Wednesday?
Mood in the camps
Wales have waged a form of psychological warfare on England in the build-up to this game - and if it was a ploy to set the agenda in the final hours before the game, it succeeded.
Gareth Bale's name dominated proceedings, not simply because of the Real Madrid forward's world-class talent, but for the digs he has aimed in England's direction.
Not content with claiming England lacked Wales' passion, he had a short and sharp response when asked how many of Thursday's opponents would get in manager Chris Coleman's team.
"None," was Bale's reply - and although said with a grin, that set the charge under the traditional pre-match news conferences.
England manager Roy Hodgson was sweating slightly in his open-necked shirt in an oppressive media centre and produced a dead bat former England opening batsman Geoffrey Boycott would have envied as he fended off questions about Wales' vocal approach.
It was a determined rather than relaxed response, irritation clearly below the surface but hidden by a refusal not to get hooked by Bale's bait.
Hodgson insisted he had nothing to say. It was, in his words, "something not worthy of comment".
And then he commented.
"Taking it seriously and thinking about what people are saying or are purported to be saying, if we let that affect us then we'd be very ashamed of ourselves," said the 68-year-old. "Talk is talk and action is action on the field."
The only googly Hodgson did not see coming was delivered by his own captain, Wayne Rooney, who when asked how many Wales players would get in his team tossed it straight in the direction of his manager.
This has not been a relaxed build-up for England, disrupted by the sub-plot of the violence in Marseille and a disappointing first result.
England's straight-down-the-line approach was the opposite of the head-on manner in which Wales have taken the fight to Hodgson and his players.
Wales have been trying the tricks since they landed in France, even down to manager Coleman responding to England assistant Ray Lewington being caught carrying a team planning sheet in Chantilly by exposing a mock line-up of his own for photographers, which included Pele.
Rooney gave a stone-faced and determined performance, but under the surface the impression lingers that England might just like to take Wales' words and ram them down their throat.
Wales boss Coleman was confident and bullish - the mirror image of everything his squad has been this week.
He has warned Wales not to get caught up in what is sure to be high emotion in Lens, but even then there was a hint of defiance that also suggested the nation who have so often had to look up to England in a football context believes its time has come.
"We've got a chance to do something special," said Coleman, 46. "England are in our way and we have to take care of business. I'm not into mind games - let's get down to business."
No mind games? You could have fooled England judging by the succession of provocative quotes coming out of the Welsh camp in Dinard this week.
Who will have the final word?
Backdrop overshadows football
As the England and Wales fans started arriving in Lens on Wednesday, with many more to make the 24-mile journey from Lille on Thursday, events around the edges of Euro 2016 have overshadowed the build-up to one of the most eagerly awaited games of Euro 2016.
The scenes of violence at Vieux Port in Marseille and inside Stade Velodrome at the end of England's 1-1 draw against Russia have provided an ominous backdrop to this game.
Russia have been given a suspended disqualification from Euro 2016 and fined 150,000 euro (£119,000) for the trouble at the conclusion of the game when their fans charged at a section of England's support. The sanction will only be imposed if there are further incidents inside a stadium and their second game, a 2-1 defeat by Slovakia, passed off peacefully, though a flare was lit among the Russia fans.
Such is the scale of the Football Association's concern that manager Hodgson and captain Rooney sent special video messages to fans appealing for calm and good behaviour, while chairman Greg Dyke raised "serious concerns" about security in Lille before the game.
The atmosphere of tension around England and their fans is in sharp contrast to the Wales base in Dinard, where all has been progressing smoothly and their 2-1 win against Slovakia in their first game at a major tournament since 1958 led to untroubled celebrations.
There was a heavy police presence from early on Wednesday at the picturesque Gare de Lens railway station, with searches being carried out on those arriving in readiness for this battle between British nations.
Security measures will increase in the hours leading up to kick-off. The greatest tests and tension are still to come but the wish of so many involved in this is for a game to match the sense of excitement and anticipation when this draw was made.
Wales' high water mark
It has been a long journey for Wales to reach the high water mark of Euro 2016 - and there have been many troughs on a trek that has reached Lens and this meeting with the old sporting enemy England.
Those of us who have followed Wales for long enough remember the cruelty of the 2-1 defeat for Terry Yorath's excellent side against Romania in Cardiff on 17 November 1993, which cost them a place at the World Cup in the United States.
Paul Bodin's missed penalty has entered the black museum of Welsh football and was the signal for a dark era epitomised by Euro 96 qualifying and the misery of being beaten 3-2 in Moldova and thrashed 5-0 in Georgia under the ill-judged reign of Mike Smith.
The Football Association of Wales was a small, somewhat shambolic organisation, treated with contempt by most of the players of that era. But now they have entered the modern world, helped by managers who demanded better, such as Mark Hughes, and dealing with the profile of superstar figures such as Bale. It is a modern operation for the modern era.
The road to France started from the low point of their worst world ranking of 117 in August 2011, when the late Gary Speed was just starting his rejuvenation of the Welsh national team.
Now Wales have come out of the darkness into the light. Their concrete-clad confidence and team spirit, allied to talent throughout and the world-class quality of Bale, means their contingent arrived in Lens in buoyant mood, convinced they will beat England.
The presence of Bale and the conviction of his public utterances this week have proved infectious to his team-mates, the lighter touch around Wales an indicator of their relaxed confidence in contrast to England's more stern-faced approach.
This was emphasised by the sight of two police security camera drones flying above England's training headquarters tucked away on the outskirts of Chantilly as they went through their last workout before departing for Lens. It certainly did not give off the whiff of relaxation around Hodgson's squad.
An old rivalry renewed
The sporting rivalry between England and Wales is usually viewed through the prism of rugby union, invariably the decider in arguments about who is currently carrying the greatest power.
Football has had its place in the past, but never on a stage such as the one that will be witnessed in Lens on Thursday and rarely with Wales in such a position to inflict a serious wound.
England and Wales have met 101 times. England lead the count with 66 wins to 14 and the sides last met in the competitive arena in Euro 2012 qualifiers.
It was a double defeat for Wales on that occasion, a 2-0 loss in Cardiff in Speed's first competitive match as manager on 25 March 2011 followed by a 1-0 reverse at Wembley in the September of that year.
In the past Wales victories have been regarded as the occasional strike from the underdog - they do not regard themselves as having that status now.
And Wales will look to the glory of their rugby union team as inspiration on Thursday, with Aaron Ramsey receiving a message from ex-captain Scott Quinnell, who played in the famous Five Nations win over England at Wembley in 1999.
As they seek their first win over England since 1984, Arsenal midfielder Ramsey focused on the great rivalry, saying: "You can see it in all sports. There is always an extra edge with England. We are no different."
England, however, have noted the fighting talk coming out of the Wales camp this week and will quietly regard this Euro 2016 meeting as the chance to exert superiority.
'Starstruck' Northern Ireland must be positive
Northern Ireland know defeat is not an option when they face Ukraine in Lyon - and to achieve that aim they need to shake off the starstruck nature of their display in the loss to Poland.
Manager Michael O'Neill has rightly insisted there will be a more positive approach as his side looked in awe of both their opponents and the Euro 2016 environment against on Sunday.
They still have the chance to rescue themselves in Thursday's crucial Group C game and this is a squad and a manager who have been defying the odds since the qualifying campaign began.
Ukraine looked dangerous in the 2-0 defeat by Germany and will see this as a chance to put their tournament back on track, while Northern Ireland will know a loss will end their hopes of getting out of the group given their last game is against the World Cup holders.
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