It's been quite the week for Welsh football. A number of magnificent stories emanating from England's neighbour to the West have been worthy of praise. The South Wales derby arriving on the world stage of the Premier League, Swansea City holding strong in the Europa League, Gareth Bale scoring in Champions League for Real Madrid, West Brom's Boaz Myhill with a clean sheet against Crystal Palace, and Chris Coleman seemingly front runner for the managerial position with the Eagles.
All aforementioned positive Welsh footballing stories pale in comparison to the continual top performances by two players on opposite ends of their playing careers. The legendary Ryan Giggs and the upstart Aaron Ramsey featured prominently in the Champions League midweek; a testament to the quality of both players. Giggs' Manchester United and Ramsey's Arsenal face one another this Sunday in what sets up to be a mouth-watering tie and statement match for both sides. Ramsey will play a key role. And based on form and possible squad selection, it's hard to rule out some sort of Giggs intervention in the all-important match.
Welsh football has an esteemed class of top players having come from the tiny British nation. Ian Rush, John Charles, Mark Hughes and Neville Southall immediately come to mind. And while Bale is the current poster boy, no player comes close to the accomplishments of Ryan Giggs. The most decorated player in Premier League history, Giggs added another notch to his belt Tuesday, playing in his 950th match for Manchester United in a 0-0 draw at Real Sociedad. Giggs was influential in the middle of the park with United holding 55 per cent of possession and were two hit goal posts away from taking all three points. While his central midfield partner, Maraoune Fellaini was a mess and all over the place before being sent off, Giggs was a pillar of strength, bringing stability to the position and team organization. Nothing flashy, but efficient.
Giggs' 950th match for United puts him in the same illustrious category as all-time greats Paolo Maldini and Pele for extended service to one club. Nearing the age of 40, Giggs has undoubtedly lost a step, but his football instincts and adaptability still make him an important squad player at Old Trafford. The Welshmen has re-invented himself from a pacey left-winger into a savvy, composed central midfielder. Nowadays, Giggs picks his spots when moving forward in attack, preferring to use his superior vision and distribution to influence a match.
Giggs resume speaks for itself – 13 Premier League titles, as well as a myriad of other silverware – and stands alone as the only player to play and score in every Premier League season. Now an assistant coach, it must be an awkward transition, not only in his career, but serving as the bridge between the leadership of Sir Alex Ferguson to David Moyes. Coaching is a new role for him, and balancing his contributions on the field with staff responsibility speaks to how highly regarded he is at the club, from the top down.
The fact he continues to contribute at a high level speaks to the class of the player. He's only played nine matches, and must be used conservatively but the games he has played in speak to his importance. He's played in three of United's four Champions League matches, as well as appearing against Chelsea, Liverpool twice, and Southampton. United has clear weakness in the middle of the park. Fellaini is struggling to settle and Tom Cleverley has failed to convince. Phil Jones has been a fit in the midfield in certain matches. So it falls to Giggs to bring consistency to the position alongside Michael Carrick.
It may not be ideal casting too much responsibility on a 39-year-old nor is it ideal to do the same with 18-year old Adnan Januzaj on the wing but that's where United is at for the time being. Despite their ages, Giggs and Januzaj both seem up for it. Important for both, Manchester United is returning to form. They are undefeated in October and their last eight overall heading into Sunday's match with Arsenal. Squad rotation and role definition is all-important to this return to form. Giggs is a big part of that.
Arsenal does not have the luxury of a deep squad. Relying on the young legs of a Welshman of their own is a must. Ramsey, 22, has been a revelation these early days. The winning goal in a 1-0 shock away victory at Borussia Dortmund not only puts the Gunners in pole position to advance from a very difficult Group F in the Champions League, but also incredibly brings Ramsey's goal tally to 11 in 17 appearances in all competitions this season. Ramsey had 11 goals combined in the last four years in various competitions for Arsenal and Cardiff City. His emergence has tipped him as early front-runner for Player of the Year.
It's strange to think the player is only 22, having originally featured with Arsenal in 2008/09. Ramsey has always been highly rated, but the early returns failed to live up to his lofty billing. The impatient nature of modern football had some questioning whether he'd ever meet the standard of a top, regular Premier League footballer. There was legitimate reason to question. The player often looked timid, lost in his own skin, prone to mistake with little stature.
The previous description has been the furthest from the truth in recent months. It's all seemed to come naturally for Ramsey this campaign. The cool finishing in front of goal stands out. Ramsey's finish against Liverpool on the weekend was a testament to patience and confidence on the ball. Liverpool foolishly gave Ramsey too much time and space outside the 18-yard box. With awareness, Ramsey let the ball bounce three times, not rushing his effort, before delivering a top corner blast for his sixth tally in Premier League play; a class goal by every sense of the description.
In previous years in a similar situation, the player would have rushed the effort or become over-anxious at the opportunity. His newfound calmness is striking, not only in goal scoring opportunities but also in possession of the ball. Taking players on, back heels, and cheeky interventions have become commonplace. It's no coincidence this growth has shown itself with other top creative players around him. The influence of Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil is a positive one and cannot be discredited. Playing in a midfield of much lesser quality at Arsenal in previous years, where the line between brilliance and error was paper-thin, the context put too much of an onus on a player ill-prepared to take upon such a role. The midfield is now a strength at Arsenal; Ramsey is a prominent piece but not alone.
Bale may have moved on to Spain but the Premier League remains in good Welsh hands. The savvy, record setting custodian and the lively, full of confidence young gun are making sure the Welsh Dragon is not forgotten in a sea of Belgian quality in the Premier League.