A blog on a crucial international weekend for Wales in 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying.
Wales manager Chris Coleman believes his side have the experience necessary to produce in the four remaining 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, starting on Saturday when Austria visit Cardiff for a crucial match that neither side can afford to lose.
Speaking to the press and media at Cardiff City Stadium on Friday, Coleman highlighted the personal milestone of defender Chris Gunter as a prime example of why this Wales side are equipped with the mental toughness necessary to see through a project that began in Cardiff a year ago with a 4-0 win over Moldova. Gunter is set to earn his 80th international cap on Saturday, and the achievement represents just how much the majority of this squad have been through over the course of the last decade.
“The number of caps we have in the squad now is very positive,” Coleman explained. “And they’re still at a good age. We’ve been in these situations before and the players haven’t disappointed. We’ve been waiting years to be in situations like this. The draws we’ve had away from home have been good draws and we’re not far off. We don’t need to rip things up and go down a different pathway. It’s exciting for us to be in this position and it’s more than doable. Four games to go and we’re still in the mix, a full house in Cardiff, and that’s what we want. We’ve got to maximise our opportunities.”
Speculation continues to be drawn on the future of Coleman as he refuses to consider the fact that the qualifying campaign could effectively be over after this international break. The players have publicly spoken about their desire for the manager to remain in place and develop the exciting young talent that is currently emerging through the Welsh football pathway system, and it is encouraging that he has turned to teenagers like Ethan Ampadu and Ben Woodburn in this squad.
— Mark Pitman (@UEFAcomMPitman) September 1, 2017
“Qualification means everything to me,” he added. “My contract is for another year because we have to go to Russia. I can’t afford to think about anything else. It’s what I’m driven towards and I believe we can do it. This campaign is not finished. I’ve got enough experience in these games. I learnt a lot in that first campaign, that there’s so many things out of your control. That comes with the experience of being in the job and being in these big games. When you’re involved in a pressure situation, you do learn a lot.”
Midfielder Joe Ledley remains a free agent, and Coleman confirmed on Friday that his lack of match fitness means that he will not complete 90 minutes on Saturday, but didn’t suggest if he would start or finish the match. Meanwhile, Joe Allen and Neil Taylor sit out the match through suspension, and will hope that when they return for Tuesday’s match against Moldova that Wales still have everything to play for in Group D.
— Wales (@FAWales) August 30, 2017
Although there are six uncapped players in the squad, James Collins, captain Ashley Williams, Sam Vokes, Gareth Bale, goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, Ledley and Gunter have all represented Wales 50 or more times, and it is that sort of experience that Coleman refers to when considering the psychological pressure of the remaining four games. These players that suffered lows together as teenagers in darker international days, but bounced back to make history at UEFA EURO 2016 last summer.
And it was those knock-out, all-or-nothing, high-pressure, must-win games in France that Coleman compared the remaining four games to. “We can do it and that’s no disrespect to Austria, Moldova, Georgia and the Republic of Ireland,” explained Coleman. “I know this is a statement, but it could be Brazil, Spain and Germany. I have so much confidence in our players and in our team, especially here in Cardiff when it’s full.”
— Mark Pitman (@UEFAcomMPitman) September 1, 2017
The opening match against Slovakia, the must-win match against Russia, the subsequent knock-out games against Northern Ireland and Belgium. These are the victories that represent the big game experience and mentality that now exists within the squad. In addition, the majority of the squad have played together for Wales since they were teenagers, and they have become a well-drilled and organised unit as a result.
“If we get it right then there’s nobody we need to fear,” Coleman added. “That’s a definite. We don’t have to be afraid of anyone. But we’re only looking at one game at a time. We’ve always done that, and one game is always winnable, no matter who it is against. These last four games are like a mini-tournament. They’re do-or-die depending on what the other results are. One of us could be dropping out if it’s a negative result, so I don’t think either team is going into the game looking for a draw.”
Wales and Austria currently sit third and fourth respectively in Group D, and both teams have four points to catch group leaders Serbia and the Republic of Ireland with four games remaining. However, the pressure is on all four teams as they head into these crucial qualifiers, and the unwavering confidence in this Wales team suggests that this campaign will go right down the last round of games. Nobody knows this Wales team as well as Coleman, and if his belief is justified, qualification remains a very real proposition.