Wales expect Bale to bail them out of tight spots
A GLANCE at Wales' record in qualifying for Euro 2016 reveals a glaring truth: Stop Gareth Bale, and you have a very good chance of stopping Chris Coleman's team.
That Wales are gearing up for a first major tournament since 1958 owes much to the brilliance of Bale, who scored seven of their 11 goals in qualifying, including match-winning strikes against Andorra, Belgium and Cyprus.
As the world's most expensive footballer, the 26-year-old Real Madrid forward is used to being closely marked and he can expect to be the centre of opposition attention whenever Wales take to the field in France.
Wales have plenty of Premier League experience in the shape of captain Ashley Williams, the Swansea City centre-back, and Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey. But it is Bale who gives them an edge.
While Bale - who has scored 19 goals in 54 international appearances - is now established as one of the world's most feared attacking players, it took him time to find his feet.
A product of the acclaimed Southampton youth academy, he joined Tottenham in May 2007. But injuries hampered his progress and manager Harry Redknapp was initially wary.
Originally deployed at left-back, Bale came to be seen as something of a jinx after playing in 24 successive Premier League games for Spurs without once tasting victory.
But Redknapp's decision to move him on to the left wing reaped rich dividends. In the 2010-11 Champions League, he produced a pair of performances that made the world sit up and take notice.
He scored a blistering second-half hat-trick in a 4-3 loss away to Inter Milan and then destroyed Brazil right-back Maicon for a second time as Spurs claimed revenge with a 3-1 win in the return fixture.
The move to Spain followed soon after, with Madrid shelling out a fee of 100.8 million euros (S$156 million) that saw Bale eclipse his new team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo as the world's most expensive footballer.
Bale has not always been spared by the Bernabeu boo boys. But having rediscovered his form under Zinedine Zidane, he will travel to France with the weight of a nation's expectations on his shoulders.