Here we come?
Last time a Welsh team did it was 1958 – can Bale and the gang really qualify asks Riath Al-Samarrai
Four down, six to go, no defeats on the card. Can they do it? First time since 1958 and all that. Will the mere asking of the question prompt a buckling of the knees? Is there enough cotton wool in the world to keep Gareth Bale safe?
These are delightful times to follow the Welsh football team; times of optimism that tend to surface every 10 years or so and usually precede moments of great disappointment. There was Paul Bodin’s penalty and then there was Russia’s defence. It’s the hope that kills you, as they say. Will this campaign for Euro 2016 be any different? Will the mixture of easier European Championship qualification and a so-called golden generation finally deliver something so infuriatingly rare? Some of the signs have been excellent. Others less so.
Here, RedHanded rates the qualification campaign so far and looks at what needs to be addressed before the games resume in March.
*** What have Wales done well? ***
Group position 8/10
Wales sit second with eight points from four games in a moderately difficult Group B. Part of that comes from their own endeavours and part from the surprising shortcomings of Bosnia, the second favourites in the group behind Belgium, who sit fourth with a game in hand. Bosnia’s losses against Cyprus and Israel left them six points behind Wales, and brought on a managerial change. They are floundering badly. Belgium remain favourites for the group by virtue of their excellent squad, but Israel are the unknown quantity. They top the group with three wins from three and have a game in hand. But of their squad only Tomer Hemed of Almeria (La Liga) plays in one of Europe’s leading leagues. Can they sustain it? I doubt it.
“We’ve always been a little country
that’s never done much and when we’ve
promised to do something we’ve never done it”
Performances – 7/10
As good as the results have been, there are questions to be asked about the performances. Wales were awful in winning 2-1 on a terrible pitch against Andorra’s part-time footballers. Only the individual excellence of Bale prevented what would have been a fair inquisition into Chris Coleman’s management of such a talented squad. The 0-0 home draw against Bosnia was initially cagey before an entertaining second half in which Wales were as vulnerable as enterprising, while the 2-1 home win over Cyprus was harder than it needed to be, not least because of Andy King’s red card. Drawing 0-0 in Belgium was a superb result and demonstrated excellent resolve against significant pressure. But it is worth noting that of those four games, it was only against Andorra that Wales had more than 40 per cent of the possession.
Club v country – 10/10
It is to Coleman’s great credit that there have, as far as we know, been no issues in securing the release of top players from their clubs. In a squad featuring Real Madrid’s Bale, Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey and Liverpool’s Joe Allen, that is extremely impressive and important, especially in light of Coleman’s tit-for-tat with Real’s Carlo Ancelotti in October 2013. For now, all the cartels seem content to let their stars play for Wales, which has not always been the case. Much of that is down to improved communications behind the scenes. Coleman said: “I’ve never had a manager ring up and say, ‘You can’t have him’. If we have bad relationships with clubs there is only one winner – and it’s not us. We are going to lose out. The better we treat the players and the clubs then we have more of a chance of getting what we want in the long run.”
*** What must Wales do? ***
Survive the pressure
One mechanism might be to do away with the little-man thinking in much the same way as Huw Jenkins has at Swansea. For that reason, the tone of Coleman’s comments following the important draw in Belgium were perhaps a little concerning - though they were spoken in answer to a question about the risks of over-confidence. ‘If you’re a Welshman, you never get too confident,’ he said. ‘We’ve always been a little country that’s never done much and when we’ve promised to do something we’ve never done it. But by the same token I don’t want anybody to underestimate us. Pity the teams that don’t take us seriously.’ The message is sensible enough, but top teams focus on creating positive narratives. There aren’t many motivational quotes in the grounds of leading clubs that talk about previously failing to get the job done.
Get the crowds in
The problem of supporters only turning up when they are winning is quite pronounced in Wales, as evidenced by the fact that the football team hasn’t played at the Millennium Stadium since 2011. Much of the public indifference is down to the national side’s form, but it was a little concerning to see only 21,273 attend the win over Cyprus, three games into this promising campaign. Public support is of huge significance, as shown in the campaign to reach Euro 2004. If 2,600 can travel to Belgium for an away match, maybe a few more can make it to Cardiff for the home games.
Get lucky with injuries
Aside from the monumental difficulty of qualifying in the event that Bale gets injured, this is not a squad so deep with talent that leading players will not be missed. The first XI is strong – against Belgium, Coleman started Bale plus seven Premier League players, not including Tottenham’s Ben Davies. But how strong are they beyond the frontline? That is debatable, though Craig Bellamy is confident that the team is not reliant on Bale. ‘We have a very good team, no two ways about it,’ he said. ‘Usually we have one or two players who are outstanding footballers. But injuries and suspensions in a two-year qualifying campaign will leave your squad depleted at certain times which is why we’ve never qualified – we’ve never had that strength in depth. Looking at this squad of players they have the numbers. Belgium are the best team in the group but we aren’t far behind them. Bale is the best I have ever seen in a Welsh shirt but he’s backed up by outstanding players like Ramsey and Joe Allen.’
The next three games are vital
Next up Wales face Israel away, Belgium at home and Cyprus away. Six points from those three games is a realistic expectation and would put Wales in a dominant position going into the final three games, while also taking pressure off the trip to Bosnia for their penultimate fixture.
For more info on the next round of qualifiers go to www.faw.org.uk