A feature on Wales’ 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign and why it is far from over.
“I think we will qualify,” said Wales manager Chris Coleman to the assembled press and media as he announced his squad recently for the training camp in Portugal. “I still have the belief in these players and that we can go to Serbia and get a result.” There were a few raised eyebrows as the statement contrasted heavily with the negativity surrounding the suspension of Gareth Bale. But Coleman was his usual confident self, determined to approach the crucial 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier in Serbia with the right attitude, and once again, he was vindicated.
Wales returned from Portugal and headed to Belgrade with a squad decimated by injuries and suspensions. Undefeated but registering just one victory in their opening five games, ground had already been lost on the leading pack, but the finishing line was still not in sight and it was important for Coleman to box clever as his side prepared for a tough test in an intense atmosphere without their star man. Tom Lawrence was considered by many as the young and exciting alternative to Bale having impressed during the domestic season, but Coleman opted for experience instead, as Dave Edwards was brought into the starting line-up.
— Mark Pitman (@UEFAcomMPitman) May 25, 2017
An audacious penalty from Aaron Ramsey handed Wales a surprise lead before the break, but the demands of over 50,000 Serbian fans forced the home side to increase the pressure in the second half, and as Wales tired they eventually found an equaliser. Further chances at both ends meant that either team could have left with a valuable three points, but the rewards were shared, much to the delight of the manager in his post-match reaction to the 1-1 draw. Wales are now four points behind the leading pair of Serbia and the Republic of Ireland, with four games remaining.
There is no doubt that for Wales to succeed they need their best players available all of the time. This basic theory was proved during the successful UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying campaign, and has been backed-up in the current qualifying group as dropped points have largely coincided with the absences of Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen or Gareth Bale. A yellow card for Allen against Serbia means that he will now miss the next match against Austria in Cardiff, while defender Neil Taylor will also the serve the second game of his two match ban. It has been a testing campaign for Coleman in that regard.
— Wales (@FAWales) June 11, 2017
Historically, heading to Serbia without a string of regular players would prove impossible for Wales. All six teams in Group D were in action on Sunday, and if results had been different then Coleman’s side could have found themselves seven points behind even a play-off place. As it stands, the side remain in contention with four games remaining, and have to travel to lowly Moldova and Georgia between home games against Austria and the Republic of Ireland. However, the minnows cannot be taken for granted, and Georgia will take great confidence from their 1-1 draw in Cardiff last October.
In addition, Serbia and the Republic of Ireland have to face each other in Dublin, and there are still plenty of potential twists and turns to come before the final places are decided. Wales were ahead against Serbia in both games, but twice conceded the lead on each occasion to draw 1-1. Meanwhile, the Republic of Ireland lack the world-class quality needed to see a campaign through, and their lack of big game experience could count against them when the real pressure hits them in the final few fixtures.
— Mark Pitman (@UEFAcomMPitman) June 11, 2017
By comparison, Wales do have world-class players at their disposal, and it was Bale and Ramsey who proved to be the catalysts to the successful EURO 2016 qualifying campaign. The contribution of the duo in fixtures against Andorra, Israel, Cyprus and Belgium in particular emphasised their undeniable value to the side. They were the big game players stepping-up when needed. The big game players used to the big UEFA Champions League nights and the major cup finals. Performing under pressure and taking charge of situations.
Chris Coleman unsurprisingly maintains a public belief that Wales can still qualify for the World Cup finals next summer. He has said that this will be his last campaign, whether it ends at the end of the qualifiers, the play-offs or the finals. But his belief is not a public facade, it is a genuine confidence in his players and his staff that the spirit that carried the side through to the semi-finals of EURO 2016 remains strong within this group. Injuries and suspensions make the task that more difficult, but there is far more to this side that justifies such belief.
Wales gave everything against Serbia on Sunday. Players like Joe Ledley, short of match practice having found himself out of favour at Crystal Palace in recent months, gave absolutely everything for the cause. Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey stepped-up in the absence of Gareth Bale when lesser characters may have hid from their responsibilities in such circumstances. Allen was booked, but continued to play his tenacious midfield game, battling for every ball and covering every blade of grass.
The late withdrawal of Hal Robson-Kanu ensured Sam Vokes would start to make his 50th appearance, but while he lacks the mobility of Robson-Kanu, he offers more of an aerial presence. To give him the service necessary for him to make an impact required full-backs Jazz Richards and Chris Gunter to make lung-bursting runs and play further forward, with the space behind them covered by stretching the back three of Ben Davies, James Chester and captain Ashley Williams to their limits. It was a plan that required commitment and dedication, a team effort of leaving nothing behind.
Solid point away from home, boys played well and keeps us in the running! #TogetherStronger
— Gareth Bale (@GarethBale11) June 11, 2017
And it is that level of commitment and dedication that means that Wales cannot be considered out of contention for World Cup qualification until it is mathematically impossible. Coleman knows what his players will give him. He knows that they will give him what he asks for, regardless of the physical and mental demands it places upon them. Coleman stated that there was more to come from this group of players when the EURO dream ended in Lyon, and while many have already dismissed their chances, there is without doubt a unique edge that makes this group so determined to succeed against the odds.
It has been a frustrating campaign, and that is not just due to the level of expectancy that now surrounds Wales, but through the dropped points that show just how far this team have come. Out of the last 18 qualifiers, Wales have lost just one. It occurred on a magical night in Bosnia when qualification for EURO 2016 was confirmed. Gareth Bale is the talisman of the side, but others can take on the role in his absence, and the final four games will require the same spirit and desire to succeed that made last summer such a success.
— Aaron Ramsey (@aaronramsey) June 11, 2017
Having fine-tuned a tactical plan to bring the best out of the players available to him, Coleman will not want this campaign to end anytime soon, and bowing out of his dream job at the World Cup finals would be a far more fitting departure for a man that has defied the odds to become the greatest Wales manager of all time. The campaign is far from over, and while they is still a lot to do and defensive frailties to fix, the spirit that has brought unprecedented success was never more apparent than in Serbia on Sunday. Coleman has not given up on his World Cup dream, and neither should we.