Rejuvenated Gareth Bale can boost Wales, says Chris Mepham

By Gareth VincentBBC Sport Wales
Gareth Bale looks dejected after Wales' 1-0 defeat by Hungary in Euro 2020 qualification
Gareth Bale cut a dejected figure after Wales' defeat by Hungary

Chris Mepham has not forgotten the look on Gareth Bale's face after Wales' Euro 2020 qualification hopes took a couple of dents in June.

But with Ryan Giggs' squad reunited - and Bale's Real Madrid future much more certain - Mepham remains upbeat ahead of Friday's Group E clash with Azerbaijan in Cardiff.

Summer defeats to Croatia and Hungary mean Wales have little margin for error as they target a second successive European Championship.

Yet with Bale around, there is always hope.

"Gaz seems like he's at home when he's in the Wales set-up," says Bournemouth defender Mepham.

"It means so much to him every time he puts the Wales top on, you can see that.

"When we lost the two games out in Croatia and Hungary, I saw him in the dressing room afterwards and he was devastated. We all were, but it just shows how much it means to him.

"He always wants to be the player that can get a goal. I'd imagine that if he feels he hasn't contributed, he is disappointed in himself.

"But when Gaz is on it he's up there with the best players in the world. Hopefully on Friday he steps up to the plate, which we know he can do."

Chris Mepham keen to emulate 'natural leader' Ashley Williams

Bale joins up with Wales having put a summer of uncertainty at club level behind him.

The 30-year-old seemed certain to leave Real Madrid but after a proposed move to China fell through, he has returned to the fold in the Spanish capital.

He has started Real's three La Liga games so far this season, scoring twice in the 2-2 draw with Villarreal on Sunday before being sent off for two yellow cards.

"It's good to see him back out on the pitch performing because he had a lot of speculation over the summer and it's good he has that focus back," Mepham adds.

"By the sounds of it, he is back to his natural sharp self and hopefully we'll see that on Friday."

Bale's presence is all the more welcome given that Wales are without injured duo Aaron Ramsey and David Brooks for the Azerbaijan game.

But the positive news for Giggs is that Bale is not the only player in the squad who is capable of changing a game.

Daniel James celebrates his goal for Manchester United against Southampton
Dan James has scored three goals in four Premier League appearances for Manchester United

Dan James has enjoyed a superb start to life as a Manchester United player having joined from Swansea City in the summer, while Harry Wilson is shining alongside Mepham at Bournemouth following his loan move from Liverpool.

"It's good we have other players in the team that have shown in the last couple of weeks that they can create that magic moment," Mepham says.

"I am delighted for Dan James. He is such a good lad - really down to earth. I saw the goal he scored (for Swansea) against Brentford and I thought wow, that's some pace he has got.

"It's good to see him doing it now for one of the top teams in the country.

"And Harry has come into Bournemouth and done really well. He is full of confidence at the minute which is good to see and is good timing for these international games."

It is not only at the top end of the field where Giggs has promising youngsters at his disposal.

Mepham, 21, was dropped for the 1-0 loss in Hungary having started the 2-1 reverse in Croatia, but is tipped to reclaim his place against Azerbaijan.

Chris Mepham in action for Wales during the 1-0 win over Slovakia
Chris Mepham is expected to return to Wales' starting line-up against Azerbaijan

Ashley Williams has been left out of the squad having been without a club until joining Bristol City 10 days ago, meaning the heart of Wales' defence is likely to have an inexperienced look.

Swansea's in-form 21-year-old Joe Rodon may win a first cap, while Tom Lockyer and James Lawrence are among the other contenders to start.

"Ash has been a real servant to Welsh football for a long, long time and he has been really good with the young lads because of his experience," Mepham says.

"He will be big miss. But whatever partnership it is on Friday night, it's going to be a good one because we have four or five good centre-backs who are playing regularly."

Whoever gets the vote, Wales will be hopeful of making it two home wins from two in this qualification campaign having started with victory over Slovakia in March.

Anything other than three points, after all, would leave hopes of progression looking slim.

"It is a massive game," Mepham says.

"Coming away from the two summer games without any points was really frustrating. This is a must-win for us."

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