Here we go again. Another qualifying campaign full of hope is upon us, and one that supporters dream will end with a passage through to a major tournament at the end of it.
The extension from 16 to 24 teams for the European Championships in 2016 means that never before has there been so much expectation. The false dawns, Wales followers believe, are about to come to an end.
In truth, the qualification draw made earlier this year only heightened the optimistic outlook. Belgium were the toughest of the sides Wales could have faced from Pot 2, yet on the flipside, Bosnia-Herzegovina were by far and away the best pick among the top seeds.
If Wales are to do it the easy way, they must trump Bosnia to second spot – assuming Belgium push on from their decent World Cup showing and win the group, that is. It means a crunch home game early on in the campaign which could bring in Wales’s highest international attendance for some time at the Cardiff City Stadium.
But it all begins in Andorra on Tuesday night, before key matches against fellow lesser nations Israel and Cyprus. Wales will never be in a position to write off opposition, yet anything less than a comfortable victory next week in the Pyrenees principality of Andorra will spell disaster.
Ranked just inside the top 200 in FIFA’s latest rankings, the small nation have just three wins to their name, with just one of those coming in a competitive game. It’s a first ever meeting against the landlocked microstate for Wales, while Bale and Co. even have the honour of playing the opening fixture in Andorra’s new 3,000+ capacity stadium which has just about been completed in time (you may have heard about it in the news this week?…)
There is no question that getting off to a flyer is vital. Two years ago, a brave but ultimately futile performance against Belgium ensured that the Red Dragons were off to a damp start. Not to worry, up next was Serbia, a tough-looking opponent, but another positive display would nonetheless give supporters hope to cling onto heading into the easier looking games.
A 6-1 thrashing followed, and those of us in the derelict crumbling away end in Novi Sad could only smile as another qualification campaign had essentially come and gone within the space of 180 minutes. It wasn’t all bad, of course, as the double over Scotland soon after highlighted. It was the defeat against Macedonia in September of last year, combined with the three goal follow-up reverse against Serbia, which left many calling for manager Chris Coleman’s head.
Some – myself included, it must be said – called for a complete revamp of Welsh football from top to bottom. Not just on the field, but off it too. San Marino’s victory against Geraint William’s Under-21 side – their first win at any level in over a decade – proved that a hiatus from a major tournament, now stretching back to 1958, was not even close to coming to an end.
So what makes this campaign so different? That was just 12 short months ago, after all. Maybe it’s part of being a Welsh supporter – built in the psyche that you simply must have high expectations, even though you know they will come crashing back down with a bang.
And yet. A squad which possesses Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey alone should be enough – at least it is for the likes of Sweden, Bosnia and other nations on the edge of being elite forces. There has been some strengthening done over the few months since the final qualifying game, however, with James Chester brought in. He is by no means a heavyweight player, but someone who should fit in nicely alongside captain Ashley Williams.
The full-back berths speak for themselves, with left-back in particular providing competition for three players who could more than hold their own – Neil Taylor, Declan John and Ben Davies. The latter is likely to get the nod despite his lack of match action since moving to Tottenham Hotspur this summer, while Adam Matthews is expected to be selected on the other side.
In midfield, too, Coleman has plenty of options, with a raft of Premier League regulars to choose from. Up front, options are visibly scarce, and an international team pinning their hopes on glory should not really be counting on Simon Church to lead the line. Sam Vokes’ return in the early months of next year will be a big plus.
Emyr Huws, who surprisingly joined Wigan Athletic on a permanent deal earlier this week, will look to make one of the central-midfield spots his own before qualification comes to an end, while Joe’s Allen and Ledley can provide a great pivot to allow Wales to build attacks.
As Allen himself said, though, talks of this being a ‘Golden Generation’ must be quickly stamped out. Having some fantastic individual players is one thing, constructing a solid system is another matter entirely.
This is by no means Wales’ last chance to reach a major tournament, as some suggest, with the expanded Euro’s set to continue for the time being. But will Bale and Ramsey – unquestionably the key men to any hopes – be in quite the same form as they are right now in four years’ time?
The good news is that right now the squad looks to be united – just look at the lack of pullouts to date – while there is also harmony from the supporters in regards to Coleman’s leadership, although a slow start to the campaign will surely see all that change.
So here’s to another campaign of promise, hope and expectation… just don’t go booking any flights to France just yet.
Solskjær’s Cardiff rev-ole-tion continues: Meet the new men pitted with keeping the club in the Premier League
Cardiff City manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær is set to announce the signings of former Molde players Magnus Wolff Eikrem and Mats Møller Dæhlie in the next 24 hours. As the new manager, players and backroom staff settle into the club and attempt to turn around Cardiff City’s fortunes at the bottom end of the Premier League, ViewFromTheStands looks at the men tasked with implementing this Norwegian revolution in South Wales…
As far as managerial spells go, winning the league title back-to-back – including the clubs first in their 100 year history – alongside lifting a domestic cup, is pretty much as good as it gets. That is exactly what highly-rated manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær achieved in his three year stint in charge of Molde FK, becoming somewhat of a hero along the way.
Now, in his return to the isles in which he tasted so much success as a player, Solskjær is aiming to turn Cardiff City from a club battling turmoil both on and off the pitch, into an established Premier League side – but first, he must keep his new side in the division.
In order to achieve that, the former Manchester United forward has turned to former players Magnus Wolff Eikrem and Mats Møller Dæhlie. It must be said, not a lot is known about these two men, other than the fact they are both known well by Solskjær.
Grainy Youtube footage puts across the image that these are players with potential, though perhaps not able to make it in the Premier League – alas much-maligned Andreas Cornelius, who has so far failed to adapt to life in English football.
Harsh, maybe, though what Cardiff need right now is a set of players who can push the club clear of trouble, before Solskjær can then plan – and implement – his own full-term rebuilding project.
So what do we know about the two men who are set to be announced officially in the coming days? Firstly, Dæhlie, as Norwegian journalist and Molde fan Erik Skavold Lystad tells ViewFromTheStands, is a player with “a touch unlike anyone else in the Norwegian top-flight.”
Dæhlie arrived at Molde from Manchester United’s reserve squad last summer, with the promise of first team football under former United Reserve team manager Solskjær. The 18-year-old made an immediate impact.
“His creativity and technique is very pleasing to watch,” Lystad said. “His lack of outright pace is compensated for with his smart movement and ability to keep the ball.
“At such a young age, we should expect great things from Dæhlie.”
Great things, indeed. As this is a player who has already represented his country at senior level and also captained Manchester United’s reserves- a team which included Adnan Janazaj, who is also touted for a promising future in the Premier League.
Reports suggested that Solskjær had targeted the youngster to compensate for Cardiff’s lack of a ball-keeping midfielder alongside record signing Gary Medel. In fact, besides Medel’s incredible 90% pass accuracy rate, fellow midfielders Peter Whittingham (80%), Kim Bo-Kyung (83%), Aron Gunnarsson (78%), Jordon Mutch (70%), Craig Noone (67%) and Don Cowie (83%), are struggling to retain possession in the middle of the field. The most damning aspect of this statistic being that the average pass range of said players is around 9 yards. Read more…
A week can be a long time in football. Following Cardiff City’s historic victory against local rivals Swansea, Malky Mackay and his side were labelled as heroes as they strengthened their mid-table status in the Premier League. A disappointing loss against Aston Villa just six days later however, combined with victories for fellow relegation threatened clubs, means that Cardiff fans are now sitting a little less comfortably as we head into the international break.
The two week hiatus offers meticulous planner Mackay the opportunity to analyse the games to date to see how his side can push on. It doesn’t take a genius to work out however, that the major problems Cardiff City currently face is stopping opponents creating so many chances, and creating opportunities of their own.
It’s no coincidence that Cardiff’s player of the season thus far has been goalkeeper David Marshall, whose impressive saves have often been the difference between the Welsh club facing a crushing defeat and walking away with a point. In the games against Tottenham (11 saves), Norwich (10 saves) and Newcastle (8 saves), Marshall showed just why he is so important to Mackay’s side, but it also highlighted that Cardiff simply allow opponents too much time and space to shoot.
Add to this the fact that defensive shield Gary Medel has picked up the Man of the Match accolade on three separate occasions this season, combined with Steven Caulker making the most blocks in the Premier League, and you begin to build a bleak defensive picture. However, the 4-1 mauling at Stamford Bridge aside, Mackay’s men can be fairly happy with the way the first quarter of this season has gone from a defensive viewpoint – three clean sheets in 11 games backing this up, the Bluebirds must however stop allowing opposing teams so many opportunities to build attacks.
Coming into the season with five recognised strikers – Fraizer Campbell, Joe Mason, Andreas Cornelius, Rudy Gestede and Nicky Maynard – combined with wingers Craig Bellamy and Peter Odemwingie who can both play in an advanced role, Mackay would have been fairly content with his squad. Yet an early season injury to promising striker Cornelius seemingly changed everything. Instead of now having a tall and powerful targetman, Mackay was instead left relying on Campbell, and more recently Odemwingie, to play in the lone-striker role in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Read more…
When he walks out for his country at next summer’s World Cup Finals, it will be hard for Kim Bo-Kyung not to pinch himself, as if this is all a dream. A bronze medal at the London Olympics, followed by promotion to the Premier League with Cardiff City and a small matter of Brazil 2014 to look forward to next summer – all this for a player who was still at university just three years ago.
With eight Premier League games under his belt – as well as 28 appearances in a gruelling Championship campaign last season – the South Korean is now well and truly at home in British football. Though it was not until 2010 that Kim opted to drop out of university and instead focus on his true love of football – it’s fair to say he hasn’t looked back since.
By moving away from his family at a young age after joining Japanese side Cerezo Osaka, Kim toughened himself up ahead of a career that was destined for a move to European football – the home of the biggest club sides in the world. A loan spell at second division Oita Trinita gave Bo-Kyung his first real taste of regular football, before eventually being given a chance by Osaka.
Kim rewarded his side’s faith by scoring eight times from midfield in his first full season in the J-League, before following this up with another seven goals in 15 appearances in the 2011/2012 campaign – a run of form which truly captured Europe’s elite, including Monaco, Celtic and Borussia Dortmund.
Despite the initial interest from Dortmund and Celtic, Cardiff City manager Malky Mackay still remained confident that, by offering a launch-pad into European football, the Asian star could learn his trade in a side seeking promotion to the Premier League – it was a mutual agreement between two parties looking to better themselves: Cardiff City wanted to play in the top-tier of English football, Kim wanted to put himself in the shop window for bigger, more established clubs.
Though things could have been a lot different. Monaco reportedly came close to signing Kim, though potential visa and military duty issues – which had caught out fellow countryman Park Chu-Young previously – meant that Cardiff’s offer was the best on the table and the 22-year-old would be moving away for a second time in his short career.
Before joining the Bluebirds in a deal worth around £2m, Bo-Kyung had the small matter of the Olympic Games in London – providing the South Korean international the opportunity to get accustomed to a new culture. It also provided the attacking midfielder with his happiest moment to date – a bronze medal, which he picked up by helping his side to a victory against rivals Japan in a play-off. South Korea had knocked Great Britain out of the competition en-route to the semi-final, winning a penalty shoot-out at, of all places, Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium – the first real opportunity for City fans to see their future star up-close for the first time.
As morale-boosting as the Olympics had been, Kim took time to get up-and-running with his new club following regular international call-ups which would see him travel half-the-way around the world regularly. It wasn’t until the back-end of September of last season that the man dubbed ‘the next Park Ji-Sung’ by the man himself had got his first minutes under his belt. That coming as a substitute in the club’s 2-0 win at Millwall. Read more…
With off-the-field matters at Cardiff City dominating the column inches this week, Malky Mackay will have little time to reflect on his sides start to their first top-flight campaign in half a century. A poor opening day performance at Upton Park was followed by a memorable victory against Manchester City, with draws against Everton and Hull leaving the Bluebirds in a strong position. Losses against Spurs and Newcastle somewhat left fans depleted, though a late victory against Fulham sandwiched inbetween has left the Welsh club in a strong position to push on following the two week international break.
ViewFromTheStands looks at how Mackay’s men have fared in their opening seven games of the season, using statistics provided by StatsZone and WhoScored to give a rundown of each position.
Not so long ago, David Marshall was playing second-fiddle to Tom Heaton in the Bluebirds goal. Three seasons on and a whole load of clean sheets later, the man now considered to be Scotland’s number 1 ‘keeper is the first name on City’s team-sheet – in more ways than one.
With a total of 18 shut-outs in the Championship last season – the highest in the league – Marshall’s form more often than not saved his side valuable points in what was a gruelling, but successful campaign.
Questions were asked of whether or not he could continue his form in the Premier League, but a clean sheet against Everton, combined with a man of the match performance against Tottenham, has ensured that Marshall has silenced any doubters.
In that clash with Spurs at the Cardiff City Stadium last month, the Scot pulled off a number of high quality saves which again helped to highlight his importance to Mackay’s side. A Paulinho goal after 93 minutes of play – Spurs 29th effort of the game – would win the contest for the away side, though Marshall could be happy with his contribution.
One problem the former Celtic stopper does face however is his distribution. A big trait of modern day football is to play from the back, though Marshall is often harried into firing the ball up-field with only Fraizer Campbell to aim for. Not surprisingly, Marshall only found a Cardiff player four times when going long – meaning the opposition were allowed to continue forming attacks.
This is a regular occurrence in the Premier League for Cardiff so far, though Marshall has certainly improved on this aspect, as can be seen in the Newcastle game (right). Marshall attempted 17 passes in that game with just two unsuccessful – the two long passes. It’s something which has gradually been eradicated over the opening stages of the season, but Marshall must continue to work on this facet of his game.
In terms of back-up, Joe Lewis has cut a frustrated figure on the bench, limited to just one league appearance. That came away at Hull last month in an early season ‘six-pointer’ between two clubs expected to be in or around the drop zone come May.
Lewis put in arguably his finest performance in a Cardiff shirt to date against the Tigers; pulling off a couple of vital saves to keep the scores level. Injury to Marshall permitted, Lewis will now look on from the bench until he gets his next chance in the FA Cup in January. Though the former England U-21 ‘keeper has shown that he certainly has the ability to step-up if Marshall was to pick up a recurrence of his injury. Read more…
Though City began the season setting out in a 4-4-1-1 system, Malky Mackay has now moved towards a more fluid formation, which is best described as a 4-3-3. As can be seen by the average position graph to the left, man of the match Gary Medel sat deepest in a midfield triangle completed by Kim Bo-Kyung and Aron Gunnarsson.
Peter Odemwingie – making his first start in the Premier League for Cardiff City – replaced Craig Bellamy in the side, offering a more attack minded option on the right, with Peter Whittingham again fielded on the left of midfield though often playing in a more central role.
The obvious feature of this clash was the way Whittingham and Odemwingie supported Fraizer Campbell up-front during attacks, but dropped back into a more compact 4-5-1 whilst defending, with the midfield offering the back four sufficient cover.
In another sign of attacking intent from Mackay, Andrew Taylor and Kevin Theophile-Catherine – another summer signing who has impressed so far – were told to push forward, with Whittingham and Odemwingie offering protection in the full back slots when needed. This is nothing new for Odemwingie who certainly fits into the Mackay mould of defending from the front.
With six games of this open Premier League season now gone, it seems a good time to weigh up City’s summer signings. Though the exciting Andreas Cornelius has yet to make any impression in the league due to injury, Steven Caulker, Theophile-Catherine and now Odemwingie have all had some time to click – and it’s so far so good for Mackay’s recruitment staff.
City’s failed attempt at the last hurdle to attract Victor Wanyama and Etienne Capoue to the club seemed to be a big blow for the Welsh side heading into the new season. Record signing Medel did give fans some hope, though limited knowledge of the player suggested Cardiff would be signing a player who did more to harm the team than help with numerous sending’s off over the course of his career.
However, it wouldn’t be far wide of the mark to suggest that the Chilean international is fast becoming one of the finest signings the Bluebirds have ever made – with this arguably his best performance to date.
Having completed 68 out of 69 passes, as well as topping the ball recovery and tackles chart, Medel put in one of the fine individual performances of the campaign so far at Craven Cottage, and remains a key player in Cardiff’s hopes of pushing on from their impressive start to the season.
Another player who impressed massively on Saturday is Steven Caulker, who continues to show that Tottenham could have made a big mistake in letting the youngster leave this summer, despite the hefty transfer fee.
Caulker himself completed an impressive number of passes from deep (31 out of 34), and also made numerous clearances and blocks to help out his side. Though Caulker picked up the fans’ man of the match award thanks to his goal, a lot of credit must go to centre-back partner Ben Turner, who continues to prove wrong those who doubted him at the start of the season.
It’s a partnership that is continuing to blossom at the back for the Bluebirds, while fellow newcomers Theophile-Catherine and Odemwingie also linked-up well at Fulham. In fact, Odemwingie and Catherine linked up 11 times in the game – second only to Taylor and Whittingham down the opposite flank. It’s early days, but Mackay seems intent on getting his side to work their way up the field from the back – a few Turner hoof’s aside, the plan is working well. Read more…
In the same week that Welshman Gareth Bale secured a record-breaking £85m move to Real Madrid, his international side have reached another low point. With qualification for next year’s World Cup all over, plus an embarrassing defeat for the U21 side, calls have been made for a complete overhaul of the Welsh football set-up. ViewFromTheStands looks at Chris Coleman’s reign to date, and what lies ahead for the national team.
Bulgaria, Israel, Romania, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Norway, Slovenia, Republic of Ireland, Serbia and Montenegro, Croatia, Slovakia, Serbia, Austria. Just some of the European teams who have qualified for a World Cup since Wales last graced the world stage in 1958.
Wales will never be world-beater’s and will certainly never be a side who qualify for major tournaments year after year. Though what hurts loyal Welsh fans most is the constant failure to not only reach tournaments, but the abject inability to even compete in qualifying campaigns.
Roll back the years to 1993 and Wales were a penalty kick away from securing their place in the following summer’s World Cup, while some 15 years previously, a controversial Joe Jordan handball helped Scotland secure their place at World Cup 78 – at Wales’ expense.
In more recent years, the closest the Dragons have come to gracing any sort of tournament was back in 2004. A famous victory against Italy – arguably the last time Wales have pulled off a major upset – meant Mark Hughes’ side were just two legs away from qualifying.
With a positive 0-0 result in Russia, Wales were left with the task of winning in front of a raucous sold-out Millennium Stadium. Wales lost. The rest is history.
It’s this failure time-after-time that has left Welsh fans feeling so negative of late. In the times of past, many may have argued that under-fire boss Chris Coleman deserves more time to leave his stamp on the side, but it’s simply a case of same old.
With seven losses (eight if you wish to include the Costa Rica game), one draw and just three victories, Coleman currently boasts the accolade of being, statistically speaking, Wales’ worst ever manager. Those three victories? A Gareth Bale inspired triumph against Austria, as well as a double over an equally poor Scotland side.
More worryingly, Wales have only scored twice from open play so far in competitive games under the former Fulham manager – a Hal Robson-Kanu header at Hampden Park and a Bale screamer late on against Scotland. Despite this, media reports suggest that Coleman has agreed to sign an extension to his contract, which will take him through to the next qualifying campaign beginning in a year’s time.
The previous regime
Following a bleak six year period under John Toshack, the Welsh FA opted to go for a fresh manager, someone who could breathe new life into the side – Gary Speed. Though Speed wasn’t everyone’s first choice following a relatively mediocre and short spell in charge of Sheffield United, many agreed that it was certainly better than Toshack, whose defensive tactics were all too much for fans to take.
Speed began life in charge of Wales in a similar way to Coleman with a run of defeats, though a Robert Earnshaw sitter away from victory at Wembley, where Wales outplayed England, left Welsh fans feeling altogether more optimistic.
This optimism eventually came good when Speed got his managerial career off and running with victories against Montenegro, Bulgaria and Switzerland leading to Wales rising up to 45th in the world rankings – an increase of 72 places which earned Speeds’ men the ‘Best Movers of the Year’ award from FIFA.
It meant that with Bale and Ramsey shining in a red shirt at last, combined with team harmony being at an all-time high, Wales were in with a shout of reaching World Cup 2014 – then tragedy struck.
Speeds death in November 2011 took the sporting world by shock, with many left in disbelief. Though football took a back seat in context of events, Wales were now searching for a new manager to continue the progress as smooth as possibly can be done in such circumstances.
Coleman, along with John Hartson and Brian Flynn, seemed to be the only real candidates from the start, with Raymond Verheijen – or ‘Dutch Ray’ as he is more commonly known – being altogether dismissed by the Welsh FA and local media. However, a poll of fans at the time suggested that continuity was needed, and Dutch Ray was the man to provide that.
The FAW instead opted for Coleman, a choice that, despite not being overwhelmingly popular, was still backed. Following the death of a true legend that was Speed, Welsh fans were needed now more than ever – and Coleman would get their support. Read more…