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    The summer is set to offer fans a feast of enticing football – but for Welsh supporters, it could have been so much sweeter. Wales fell short of a place in this summer's World Cup, meaning the country's 60-year absence from the premier tournament in sport will continue. But all is not lost – with a new manager, a youthful team and a renewed sense of optimism following the impressive showing at Euro 2016, it's still a good time to be a Welsh football fan. The national side is approaching a crucial period in its history, and the next couple of years could be crucial to its long-term success. So what's next for Wales – and what can fans be looking out for over the coming months and years?

    Well, fans shouldn't let their side's absence stop them from enjoying the tournament in Russia this summer. Missing out at least means that fans can enjoy the elite teams in world football doing battle without having to endure the tension and heartbreak that English supporters will inevitably experience at some point. The top players in the world make or break their reputations at the World Cup, and there's nothing quite like the month-long festival of football on the entire sporting calendar – plus, this year might be the last chance to watch Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo step onto the biggest stage. A month of armchair watching might be the silver lining for Welsh football fans. These odds from Sportsbet have Brazil and Germany deadlocked as joint-favourites for the trophy, with France and Spain closely behind – so, who wins this year's trophy is anyone's guess.

    What's more, the World Cup provides a perfect opportunity to scout out some of Wales' upcoming opponents. The draw for Euro 2020 qualifying is made in December, and Wales will probably wind up in the second or third pool, meaning that there will be at least one elite team in their group. So get a good look at Germany, France, Spain and Belgium playing under the spotlight while you can – you can be sure that the Welsh coaching staff will be.

    Meanwhile, the Dragons have been drawn against Denmark in next season's UEFA Nations League. It's more than just a few glorified friendlies – the side's performance in the newly-invented tournament can affect their world ranking and their future tournament seedings, so a good performance is important. How Denmark perform against France, Australia and Peru in Russia this summer could be a good indicator of Wales' chances in the inaugural competition when it begins this autumn. There's always a few surprising countries that come from nowhere to make a splash at the World Cup too, so any astute fan should be on the lookout to see how the footballing power balance changes during the tournament.

    So, what happens when the World Cup finishes and Wales head back onto the field? Well, all eyes will be on the early performances of Ryan Giggs, the team's new manager. He might be a Manchester United legend, but we don't know much about Giggs' managerial acumen just yet. He took over as interim coach for a few matches after David Moyes was sacked by United in 2014, and was well-regarded by his players. But the step-up to the national side is a big one – so, what can Giggs bring to the table, and how soon will we know if he's up to the challenge?

    The left-winger was never accepted as fondly by Welsh fans as he was by United's, partly due to the lack of major tournaments the side qualified for during his tenure. But you can bet he'll be a respected figure in the changing room, and should be able to manage both the established stars, like Gareth Bale, and the emerging talents. His first big test is a home game against the Republic of Ireland in September. Any Home Nations clash is set to provide a fiery atmosphere, so Giggs will be thrown into the deep end – especially given that he takes his side away to Denmark just three days later.

    Four points from those two games is a realistic target, which would mark a satisfying start to his regime, and would move the spotlight away from his inexperienced managerial background. Following those games, Giggs faces a friendly against Spain in Cardiff this October – an ideal test to see how well his team has gelled, and whether they're ready to put in a good showing against world-class opposition.

    And what about the players Giggs will be working with? Well, the side still revolves around Gareth Bale; the mesmerising left-winger is set to remain the country's talisman for a few years yet. But Bale has had a rough time of it at club level recently. Injuries and a drop-off in form have seen him lose his starting place at Real Madrid, with Bale sitting out the team's crucial Champions League games in favour of younger options like Isco and Asensio. A few goals and assists late in the season is a promising sign – but Bale may decide that his immediate future should lie elsewhere in order for him to get game time. That all means that this summer will involve a flurry of Bale-related transfer rumours – and perhaps a stunning return to the Premier League.

    Outside of Bale, the Welsh squad has a number of promising young talents. Liverpool's winger Harry Wilson, who spent last season on loan at Hull, is a mazy and quick player who nabbed his first goal for his country against China in March, on his first international start. Ben Woodburn, also at Liverpool, is a youngster who's really worth watching too. The 18-year-old has already worn the Welsh shirt seven times, and he's impressed at club level as well. Derby's Tom Lawrence, meanwhile, looks Premier League quality in a club shirt and has established his role in the national team's line-up.

    So despite a disappointing absence from this year's World Cup, there's plenty to like about Wales' prospects. A young side, a possible club renaissance for Gareth Bale and a new coaching staff mean the team is at an important moment – we may start to know exactly how good this team is in a few months' time.

    Posted: Tuesday 22nd May 2018
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