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Russell Todd; Make or break... Austria and Moldova

(September 01, 2017)

Pêl-droed Cymru - Wales football
Make or break... Austria and Moldova

Cymru-Wales, at Cardiff City Stadium
Next game: Wales v Austria, 2 September 2017
at Cardiff City Stadium
   

Belgrade in June. Another draw, another lead squandered. Those damn small margins again. If this road to Russia were one-day cricket Wales would be running out of overs and facing a rising run rate.

We’re on the back nine running out of holes.

Lose to Austria and we’re needing snookers.

And though we’re not yet on the ropes, whatever your sporting metaphor of choice, it’s definitely getting tickly, squeaky-bum time (©Alex Ferguson, 2003), as the table shows.

2018 FIFA World Cup qualification – UEFA Group D
all games before September 2017 included

 Pos  Team  Pld    W    D    L   GF   GA   GD    Pts 
  1

  Serbia

  6   3   3   0 13    7   +6    12 
  2

  Republic of Ireland  

  6   3    3   0   8    4   +4    12 
  3

  Wales

  6   1    5   0   9    5   +4     8 
  4

  Austria

  6   2   2   2   9    8   +1     8 
  5

  Georgia

  6   0   3   3   6  10    -4     3 
  6

  Moldova

  6   0   2   4   4 15  -11 

   2 

Hands would have been bitten-off at the start of the campaign – whole arms even – for draws against our group rivals in their Vienna, Dublin and Belgrade backyards. In Euro 2016 qualifying Bosnia Herzogovina’s World Cup hangover saw them carelessly drop points and we capitalised. In Euro 2004 qualifying we profited from Serbia and Montenegro doing likewise. That precisely half of Group D’s fixtures have been draws has meant that despite only a single win in six games Wales remain in with a shout of qualification. Qualification for Sweden in 1958 was, of course, aided by Arab intransigence, a draw from a hat, Belgian pride and a play-off. Though us Welsh fans often bemoan our footballing fortune, fortuity has (sometimes) been a friend.

Yet landing a podium finish by riding in the race leader’s slipstream may not be sufficient for Wales. The group where the runner-up has the lowest points tally will not qualify for the play-offs. At the time of writing this would suggest that Montenegro in Group E is sweating on its chances; however, in the final calculations results against the group’s last placed teams will be discounted. In Wales' case the campaign’s opening drubbing of Moldova loses its value quicker than the pound post-Brexit.
  

Wales celebrate their second goal against Austria, 6 October 2016  Photographer: Benutzer Steindy
Wales celebrate their second goal against Austria, 6 October 2016
Photographer: Benutzer Steindy

So, it is probably win or bust in each of Wales’ final four qualifiers unless a Moldovan or Georgian Gurban Gurbanov (Azerbaijan's all-time leading goalscorer and Wales’ unlikely Euro 2004 Azeri hero) can intervene. As in the previous round of fixtures Wales kick off after the other games have finished. Knowing what you have to do in your contest is one of sport’s acknowledged advantages. Yet if Ireland win in Georgia and Serbia, as one would expect, against Moldova, Wales will be seven points adrift at kick off. Might such a deficit have an inhibiting, confidence-sapping effect on the team?

Of course, it may have the opposite effect with Wales throwing caution to the wind and playing with a verve that hasn’t been seen since France. For this to happen the calming assurance and tempo-setting provided by the suspended Joe Allen will need to be adequately replaced but there are slim pickings available: Emyr Huws is injured; Joe Ledley is without a club and, presumably, a pre-season; Jonny Williams is only just returning, once again, from injury. Andy King and David Edwards, so often willing deputies for the Joes, are available but appear to be being eased to the peripheries of their respective clubs’ first team squads. Hopefully, both Williams and Edwards will have more game-time now they've joined Sunderland (31 August 2017 - on loan) and Reading (26 August 2017) respectively.

Chris Coleman at Austria v Wales, 6 October 2016  Photographer: Benutzer Steindy
Chris Coleman
at Austria v Wales, 6 October 2016
Photographer: Benutzer Steindy

As expected Chris Coleman has dipped into the international rookies, League One and youth to make up numbers; far from ideal in a win or bust scenario. The pick of these is 16 year old Ethan Ampadu, qualified for Wales via his mother, who wins his first full call-up. If he plays against either Austria or Moldova he will become Wales’ third youngest ever player after Harry Wilson and Gareth Bale, and the tenth player in the current squad to make his international debut while still in his teens. Having trained regularly with the seniors in the past year, made his professional debut for Exeter City two months shy of being allowed to legally smoke and joining Chelsea he is unlikely to be fazed. Qualifying for England, Ireland and Ghana means a cap in either competitive game would tie him permanently to Wales. But despite his promise and the choices available to him, caps must be earned and should not be demeaned by being awarded in order to prevent other nations from doing so.

As much a loss as Allen is, fortunately there are no doubts about Gareth Bale, who returns after being suspended for Serbia, and Aaron Ramsey who in Belgrade provided his best performance for Wales since Euro 2016. Both have made goal-scoring starts to their domestic seasons, as have Hal Robson-Kanu, Sam Vokes and Tom Bradshaw. This time last year Ashley Williams was settling-in at a new club while Wayne Hennessey and Ben Davies were on the bench for their clubs; this year they are all in their respective first XIs as are James Chester and Chris Gunter. Notwithstanding our midfield travails, it is refreshing that so many are playing first team football and won’t be having to use Wales games as their chance for action. 

Ashley Williams, Austria v Wales, 6 October 2016, Photographer: Benutzer SteindyAshley Williams
Austria v Wales, 6 October 2016

Photographer: Benutzer Steindy

If Wales drop points against Austria on 2 September, Wales will be unlikely to qualify. But with Ireland and Serbia facing each other when Wales visit Chișinău to play Moldova three days later, Wales will still retain a mathematical chance of qualification. For so many campaigns Wales fans are familiar with mathematical possibilities cruelly raising false hopes, goading, delaying the grieving process over another failed qualification attempt. It will make for a strange limbo for Coleman. Having previously said he will step down after the World Cup campaign this round of games could prove to be his swansong, notwithstanding the pesky maths.

The Zimbru Stadium, Chișinău, Moldova
The Zimbru Stadium, Chișinău, Moldova,
where Wales play part 2 of the international weekend
on 5 September 2017

Perhaps this dawning realisation during the summer is the reason why at the squad announcement Coleman talked about the possibility of another campaign. Yet the timing could be as perfect as the opportunities could prove tempting should the trigger-finger of any English Premier League club owner twitch in the first weeks of the season.

For what it is worth I firmly expect a fit, rested, rejuvenated Bale – free from speculation about returning to England – complemented by the ebullience of youth to inspire Wales to six points and to keep us in Ireland and Serbia’s rear view mirror.

Just need someone to summon the spirit of Gurban Gurbanov.

Russell Todd, September 2017

If you enjoyed this you will probably like these from Russell too:
     Next up... Serbia; June 2017
     Next up... Dublin; March 2017
     Pêl-droed: the beautiful country's beautiful game; December 2016

Russell Tweets as @llannerch
his website is: www.thecommunitydevelopmentpodcast.co.uk
and he is one of the team Tweeting on Podcast Pêl-droed
Podcast Pêl-droed's website is: www.podcastpeldroed.cymru

 

cylchgrawn Cymru Culture magazine
Published by/Cyhoeddwyd gan: Caregos Cyf., 2017

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