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24 Mar 2011

The sounds of one famous Welsh export had only just drifted away when England's thoughts turned to the danger posed to their Euro 2012 aspirations by another.

"Motorcycle Emptiness" by The Manic Street Preachers was a musical choice laced with irony as the media room at England's Hertfordshire base awaited the arrival of Peter Crouch.

And when Crouch started to unpick the potential pitfalls as England prepare to enter the hostility and passion of Cardiff's Millennium Stadium against Wales on Saturday, he might have borrowed another phrase from Blackwood's finest - Know Your Enemy.

In this case the enemy is well-known and comes in the shape of his Tottenham team-mate Gareth Bale, Wales' best hope of breathing life into their Euro 2012 campaign and increasing the pressure on England coach Fabio Capello.

England coach Fabio Capello, normally a stranger to over-statement, led the chorus of praise for Bale after his stellar season by anointing him as "the number one player in the world today."

It was not a message lost on his England players as they trained their sights on the 21-year-old who has illuminated Spurs' Champions League campaign, especially in defeat and victory against the holders Inter Milan.

England will use the next 48 hours to assess how Wales might probe their weaknesses - and it does not need an assembly of the coaching world's finest minds to work out that Bale will be central to their discussions.

Capello will have noted how he tortured Inter's world-class right back Maicon, but may draw encouragement from the manner in which former England veteran Phil Neville coped with Bale on two occasions, performances that so impressed Spurs boss Harry Redknapp that he later attempted to buy Everton's captain.

Neville's cause was helped by the deployment of a defensive shield placed in front of him to close down Bale's space and Capello may consider using James Milner in a similar role on Saturday.

Crouch has observed Bale at the closest quarters this season - and admits he has plenty of personal as well as professional pride at stake on Saturday. He said: "I'm not quite up to date on Twitter but I will speak to him in the run up. As soon as we were drawn in the same group as Wales I was giving him a bit of stick.

"If we lose I'll be a beat sheepish because I've been giving him loads to be honest."

Bale's brilliance, particularly when set alongside the maverick Craig Bellamy and the returning Aaron Ramsey, is at the heart of a growing belief in Wales that they can make a statement about the new era under boss Gary Speed by upsetting the old enemy in Cardiff.

And when the joking stops, Crouch is acutely aware that stopping Bale will be at the heart of Capello's plan to leave the Principality with three points.

Speed is sure to use Bale to exploit the defensive vulnerability of England right-back Glen Johnson to get Capello's side on the back foot and Crouch makes no attempt to disguise the danger his White Hart Lane team-mate poses.

Crouch, who fears he may miss out on a starting place to Liverpool's new £35m striker Andy Carroll despite his outstanding record of 22 goals in 42 England appearances, said: "Their biggest threat is Bale. That's no secret. He's a top-class player and been on fire for the last two years. It's something we will be looking at.

"We only assess opponents on Thursday and Friday, looking at videos, and I'm sure Gareth will be prominent in a lot of those videos. He's been top class. Sometimes he's unplayable.

"I think if we can stop him we can stop a lot of Wales' threat. The thing about him is his energy. He's got tremendous pace. He runs the whole length of the pitch with the ball then he runs the whole length back just as quickly. Then he's ready to do it again in a minute's time.

"It's his sheer energy. Sometimes you look at him and think 'how does he do that?' I get tired watching him. He's got fantastic ability and a great left foot as well."

Crouch has not been surprised by Bale's emergence after uncertain early days following his £10m move to Spurs from Southampton, saying: "I think even when he wasn't playing, when he wasn't quite getting the rub of the green with chances to play for Tottenham, we saw his quality in training.

"We all saw it coming because we saw for ourselves that he was a fantastic player. He's gone on to be an even better player then we thought in training. He's been top class for last two years, right up the with the best in the league, and he can only get better."

Crouch - now 14th in England's all-time list of goalscorers alongside Tommy Lawton - stopped short of joining Capello in placing Bale alongside the world's best, but recognises his rich potential.

He said: "Gareth's got some way to go to be Lionel Messi's standard. He sets the bar extremely high. Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are out there on their own at the moment, with the sheer number of goals they've scored.

"Gareth is only young, developing, and in that position he's got to be up there with the top players in the world. He's done it in the Champions League. What he did to Inter Milan over two games showed people what he is capable of and what he will do in the future."

Crouch will hope this golden future does not include undermining England in Cardiff and giving Bale the last laugh over his club colleague and international adversary.


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