A blog on the injury to Gareth Bale as Wales’ prepare for two defining qualifying games.
It was the news that no Welsh fan wanted to read on Tuesday morning, as a scan confirmed that Gareth Bale will not feature for Wales in either of the crucial 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying games against Georgia and the Republic of Ireland. But as much as his withdrawal offers an opportunity for another, it also offers the opportunity to bring an end to the argument that Wales are nothing more than a one-man team.
Of course, Bale is an exceptional talent, and this was recognised to the extent that Real Madrid broke the world-record transfer fee to take him to the Spanish capital in the summer of 2013. Despite enjoying domestic and European success at the Santiago Bernabeu, Bale has not been without criticism from some sections of the Madridistas, while his injury problems seem to have increased with each passing year. Bale battled back from injury to play in the UEFA Champions League final in Cardiff during the a few months ago, but his latest relapse, and its impact on Wales, could have far-wider reaching ramifications.
Wales have been without Bale already in the current qualifying campaign as suspension ruled him out of the draw against Serbia in Belgrade back in June, and on that occasion, Aaron Ramsey in particular stepped-up to the mark to take on the talismanic mantle that has defined Bale’s international career in recent years. More of the same is now required on Friday and Monday, and while the stats suggest that Wales will inevitably struggle without the Real Madrid star, this is a side that has evolved in character under the guidance of manager Chris Coleman, and there will be a determined optimism amongst the squad despite the latest setback.
Once again, Wales will need players like Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen to be at their best, but there is also the Ben Woodburn factor to consider following his incredible impact on his international debut against Austria last month. Likewise, David Brooks has shown all the creative and attacking potential required to earn his place in Coleman’s squad. However, Bale provides a very different element to the side, and while the attention paid to him by the opposition may have restricted his influence during the current campaign, it has served to open up the necessary space for others to compensate for his sometimes limited contribution.
— Wales (@FAWales) October 3, 2017
These are two decisive games for Wales and manager Chris Coleman, and while World Cup qualification is at stake, so is Coleman’s future in the job. It is well-documented that he refuses to be drawn on anything other than the next game, and while qualification remains possible, that is his only focus. Now his future will dependent on the performances of a side competing under pressure without their traditional headline-maker, and while he will have every faith in the players that he selects to take to the field this coming international weekend, the fact that Bale will have nothing more than a watching brief will frustrate him as much as it will the player himself.
“It’s disappointing news,” explained midfielder Dave Edwards when he addressed the press and media a few hours after Bale’s withdrawal had been announced on Tuesday. “It would be a blow for any team in the world. We knew he had a niggle and a scan, but it was still disappointing to hear the news today. It doesn’t matter how good the player is, we have to have players at 100%. Your heart sinks a little bit when you first hear it, as Gareth has the ability to win a game on his own, he can produce that bit of magic. Aaron (Ramsey) can also do that. Ben Woodburn has done it too coming off the bench, and he reminds me of what Gareth was like when he was younger. We’ve got players who can come in and do the job.”
— Mark Pitman (@UEFAcomMPitman) October 3, 2017
Having been part of the international setup for the last decade, including starting in the opening match of UEFA EURO 2016 as Wales beat Slovakia, Edwards has seen plenty of change during his time with the national team. “It’s a million miles apart from when I first started with Wales,” he added. “I look around now at the amount of quality we have and it’s the best shape Welsh football has ever been in. It’s so much stronger now than when I made my debut. If the gaffer needs me he knows he will get 100% out of me. If I do get any game time I will be ready. I’m desperate to be at the World Cup in Russia, it would top off my international career.”
But in order to have any chance of reaching Russia next summer, Coleman believes his side have to win the two remaining games, and the permutations across the qualifying groups suggest that he is once again right. However, Wales have not won an qualifying match without Gareth Bale since October 2013 when Simon Church scored the only goal of the game against Macedonia, while the last time the side won an away qualifier without him was against Azerbaijan way back in 2009. The size of the task ahead may be significant on paper, but this is a very different Wales team from 2013, let alone from 2009.
Incredible performances from Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen at EURO 2016 showed the rest of the world that Wales should not be considered a one-man team, but Bale did make a valuable contribution with his goals in the opening three games. Now they must do it without him, and judging by the general panic and hysteria across social media, it seems our own fans need reminding about how this team has grown over the course of Coleman’s tenure. Losing Bale in 2017 is not like losing him in 2014, and the squad still has enough to take on Georgia and the Republic of Ireland and win. These are the moments when players must stand-up and be counted, and there is no second chance.