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.
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…
AC Milan had one. Manchester United and Liverpool both had one. Barcelona have done it twice with one: Four giants of the Champions League, and all have something in common – they’ve won Europe’s most elite title with a regista within their ranks.
A regista – or a deep-lying playmaker, as it is more commonly known as – is a position which has really taken off of late, although in truth it has been around far longer than 2005 – the year many often pick out due to Xabi Alonso’s major role in helping to pull off the biggest turn-around in European football history with Liverpool, lifting the Champions League in Istanbul.
Beaten finalists that year, AC Milan, followed suit a couple of seasons later with the aid of Andrea Pirlo – the true master of the position – who took up the regista role in the side. The heartbreak and triumph for Milan was sandwiched by Barcelona’s success, with the Catalan giants picking up the trophy in 2006 – though it must be said their victory against Arsenal in Paris was achieved without predominantly fielding a regista, but more of a truer defensive midfielder in the shape of Edmilson.
Ironically, on the bench that evening for Barcelona was one Xavi Hernandez, a player who has since – to use a cliché – made the role his own – winning two Champions League finals between 2009 – 2011, in one of the finest sides to have graced the sport.
Xavi, much like Alonso at La Liga title rivals Real Madrid, prefers to set up attacks from a more withdrawn position, mainly due to the duo’s ability to spread play and dictate the game from these deeper positions. Despite this, they are not classed as standard defensive midfielders in the same way as Claude Makelele, for example. This is because defensive duties such as tackling and intercepting are not their main function as such (though more and more modern day regista’s are required to help out defensively too, though most sides will still field a second holding-midfielder such as Sergio Busquets, Sami Khedira, etc – known as a double-pivot), instead they are left to dictate the tempo of the play and start attacks.
Inter Milan have also triumphed in the Champions League in recent years, and of their key players was Wesley Sneijder – a man who has repeatedly been linked with a move to Manchester United to help fill a role currently occupied by Michael Carrick, in the space of Paul Scholes – another player who had taken up this deep-lying role for the best part of 15 years in the Premier League, though is not what you would refer to as a ‘traditional regista’.
Sneijder is often seen as an attacking midfielder, but during the summer of 2011, former Inter manager Gian Piero Gasperini experimented with the Dutch midfielder, playing him in a regista role on various occasions. During the Dublin Super Cup in July of that year, Sneijder excelled in this new position which further strengthened the Red Devils interest.
Nothing came of this move however, but with the club undergoing somewhat of a transition at this moment in time after Sir Alex Ferguson left the club, the Galatasaray midfielder could still be a viable option.
Another domestically strong English side, Manchester City, have repeatedly struggled to make any sort of impact in the Champions League following their success domestically. It had been well documented that Roberto Mancini lacked a real regista, and thus failed to get a grip on games against the continent’s elite sides.
The signings of Owen Hargreaves, and later Javi Garcia helped change that, though the latter has struggled to truly adapt, while Hargreaves couldn’t overcome injury issues. City still have strong and smart box-to-box midfielders in Yaya Toure and Fernandinho, but no true regista – a big disadvantage when it comes to European fixtures, as highlighted when they faced Bayern Munich earlier this season.
One of the sides the Citizens have lost to in their failed Champions League campaigns of the past is Napoli, now managed by Rafa Benitez. The Italians didn’t field a true out-and-out regista when the sides met, though more of a defensive midfielder with attacking intent: Walter Gargano.
As highlighted by the Stats Zone app below, the Uruguayan had a huge impact on the game: