Gareth Bale
Gareth Bale, center, has talked up the spirit in the Wales camp ahead of its match with England. Getty Images

A match between neighbors England and Wales at Euro 2016 was always going to carry with it a fair degree of extra spice. And Wales’ star man Gareth Bale has relished further stoking the flames of the rivalry ahead of Thursday’s Group B meeting between the two sides in Lens.

After stating that his team had more pride and passion than England, Bale then sat back and watched with amusement as England’s coach and players reacted with indignation. Roy Hodgson described the remark as “disrespectful,” while Jack Wilshere responded by saying that “We know that Wales don’t like us” and that England doesn’t really like Wales, either.

Still, in contrast to the fears of trouble away from the pitch, there is a sense that the rivalry stoking has been more playful.

“It’s good that they bit,” Bale said in a press conference on Tuesday. “I never said that they don’t have passion or pride, it’s just my opinion that we have more. I’m sure they have their opinion also. People obviously like to take things out of context a bit, but I’m happy with my comments.

“I feel we’ve got a massive team spirit, we’ve probably got the best team spirit I’ve seen. It’s just my opinion.”

In his remarks, Bale is touching on a common theme of the underdog – a team overcoming a disparity in talent through teamwork and commitment. Certainly that would have long been the narrative in England-Wales clashes. Now, though, Wales can count on a player who is the outstanding individual on either team.

Bale, who has just won his second Champions League title with Real Madrid, scored seven of Wales’ 11 goals in qualifying to help the country to its first major tournament since 1958. And he showed his importance to the side once again in Wales’ debut in the competition. The 26-year-old struck a superb free-kick to open the scoring for Wales against Slovakia. While Slovakia grabbed a second-half equalizer, Hal Robson-Kanu came off the bench to grab a late winner than puts Wales in a prime position to reach the last 16.

A point for Wales against England could prove to be sufficient, while a win would remarkably ensure that Wales win Group B with a game against Russia still to spare. The situation is considerably less comfortable for England after failing to make its superiority count in an opening contest against Russia.

While England was widely praised for its performance, particularly in the first half, clear-cut chances were few and far between. It took until a 73rd minute free-kick from Eric Dier to give England the lead. But then, as Hodgson and his side tried to hold what they had, Russia struck with an injury time sucker punch to claim a share of the points.

It was a disappointing start as England aims to show that it is no longer a group of underperforming big names but a squad of hungry young players that have shorn the sense of entitlement. Much of the focus has fallen upon Hodgson’s team selection, with Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy left out of the starting lineup and Wayne Rooney operating in a midfield role. Particular scrutiny, though, has come upon the place of Raheem Sterling, who followed his underwhelming first season at Manchester City with a less than impressive showing against Russia.

Wales boss Chris Coleman, meanwhile, could revert to the system that served him so well in qualifying, with the now fit again Robson-Kanu leading the line and Bale playing in behind.

Prediction: There were plenty of good things about the way England played against Russia, but still the sense that Hodgson isn’t making the most of the talent at his disposal. Harry Kane was largely anonymous up front and there must be an attempt to get him and them man with whom he linked up so well at Tottenham last season, Dele Alli, in closer connection. England will have to take the initiative against Wales, which is used to sitting back and has the advantage of three points in hand. And that could leave gaps at the back for Bale’s pace to exploit. Expect a tight game, perhaps ending in a stalemate that will suit Wales just fine.

Predicted Score: England 1-1 Wales

Kickoff Time: 9 a.m. EDT

TV channel: ESPN (USA), BBC One (England and Wales)

Live Stream: Watch ESPN (USA) BBC iPlayer (England and Wales)