The secret weapon Leeds United's Ethan Ampadu can flex to ensure Wales beat Poland to Euro 2024 place

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Wales face Poland with a place in the European Championship on the line - and Ethan Ampadu may be the most important player on the pitch.

Before 2016, Wales had never qualified for the European Championship. Now, they stand on the brink of a third successive crack at the continent’s biggest tournament – but to make it to Germany, they will have to get through Poland. On paper, the visitors have more experience and firepower than the Welsh. Tuesday’s match at the Millennium Stadium is unlikely to be straightforward.

There is plenty of encouragement available for Robert Page and his team. Poland were dreadful in qualifying, losing to Albania and taking just one point from their two games against lowly Moldova. They fired coach Fernando Santos last summer, and new manager Michał Probierz, who has taken charge of half the teams in the Ekstraklasa and rarely stayed long with any of them, has only overseen five matches, albeit without losing any of them. Until the 5-1 thrashing of Estonia last week, it had been some time since Poland looked like a side that added up the sum of their parts.

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But there is plenty of cause for concern, too. Poland dominated ten-man Estonia in a way that they haven’t managed to assert themselves on any team for some time, enjoying a ridiculous 85% of the possession in their play-off match and allowing just one shot on goal. They looked powerful across the pitch. They have a side packed with European experience while Wales’ squad is distinctly green by comparison. And they have Barcelona's Robert Lewandowski.

Probierz has cut a confident and bullish figure during his pre-match media duties: “We know [Wales’] strengths, and we’re ready to nullify them,” he told reporters. “We want to dictate the tempo right from the get-go, to dominate every aspect of this encounter. And we’re prepared to weather the storm, physically and mentally, because we’ve come here with a singular purpose – victory.”

Strong words, backed up by a strong team. But while Wales supporters will mostly be worrying about how the likes of Joe Rodon, Chris Mepham and stand-in captain Ben Davies will handle Lewandowski – mercifully, his usual strike partner, the Juventus striker Arkadiusz Milik, is injured – there may be a more important battle. If Wales lose what promises to be a challenging midfield battle, they will find it very hard to get a positive result from the match.

Poland line up in a 3-5-2 formation, with three players in the centre of the park – expected to be Bartosz Slisz, Jakub Piotrowski and Napoli’s impressive playmaker Piotr Zieliński. They will outnumber the Welsh pairing of Jordan James and Ethan Ampadu, and will test them to their limits. Both, but particularly Leeds United midfielder Ampadu, will need to be at their very best.

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Happily, Ampadu has been exceptional of late, and one of the best and most consistent performers for a side on scintillating form in the Championship. His passing has been crisp, accurate and creative. His defensive work has been doughty, with seven ball recoveries per game and big numbers for tackles, interceptions and clearances. He has been quite brilliant – and he will have to be again on Tuesday.

Zieliński will be key. By far Poland’s greatest creative threat on paper, he will run the channels on both sides looking for openings and playing balls into Lewandowski. He has a superb first touch, excellent technique and a lethal passing range. And while he will get about the pitch looking for space, he will initially line up directly opposite Ampadu.

Not that this will be a simple case of marking Zieliński out of the game. With an extra man in midfield, Poland should find it easier to create two-on-ones and string together passing sequences which unlock Wales’ double pivot. Of Zieliński’s companions in the central axis, Slisz is a rugged defensive midfielder but Piotrowski, who plays for perennial Bulgarian champions Ludogorets, is very much a threat going forward too.

He scored one and set up another against Estonia to make it four straight matches in which he provided a goal contribution. Mostly a ball-winner who patrols the middle of the pitch, he also supports the attack with frequency and, evidently, efficacy. If Ampadu manages to shut down Zieliński, James will have to deal with Piotrowski, and that won’t necessarily be straightforward either with a third man ready to offer a passing option.

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The reason that Ampadu will be especially important – not that James won’t need to be at his best too – is that he has one substantial advantage over the men he’ll be asked to deal with all night, and that’s pace. Ampadu isn’t the fastest player in the world but he is blessed with an extra burst of speed compared with his Polish counterparts, and in theory should be able to get to the ball quicker than they can. Ampadu is going to spend a lot of time covering ground quickly to put out fires, and if he fails then Probierz will get the domination of tempo that he wants.

How the midfielders use the ball will be vital, too. Wales can field a quick, dynamic attacking line that should be able to use their speed to give Poland’s back three headaches if they play well – but they’ll need good service. Ampadu’s passing has been outstanding of late, and it will need to be just as good in Cardiff to give his forwards something to feed off. At the same time, if he can’t prevent the Polish midfield from playing their own passes, Lewandowski will get plenty of chances to do what he does best.

Both sides have the quality up front to win the game. Both sides will be dependent on quality of service and the control of possession in midfield to provide it. In Ethan Ampadu, Wales have a man on the kind of form which puts him in pole position to be the key difference-maker on the night. If he does it, Wales might just make it three in a row.

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