Andorra vs Wales: The start of another false dawn?
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.