A feature on Wales’ upcoming 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Austria and Moldova.
On Saturday, Chris Coleman’s side take on Austria at Cardiff City Stadium for what is now a crucial 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier. Wales remain undefeated in Group D and are narrow favourites, but too many draws have left the side playing catch-up to the leading duo of Serbia and the Republic of Ireland, and the future of the manager may well hinge on the next result.
However, Coleman refused to be drawn on his position when he announced his squad for the qualifying double-header against Austria and Moldova last Friday. “The people above have been very, very good with me, and kept faith with me all the way through,” he explained. “I never think past the next game, it’s a policy I’ve had for a few years and I won’t change that. I believe we’ve got a great chance, and we have to grasp that. I can’t think past Saturday. We’re not at the end of this campaign yet and I think we have a better chance than most people think we have.”
The speculation is a result of Coleman’s claim that this campaign would be his last, but it was his expected intention that the campaign would end next summer at the finals in Russia, and after what he experienced at UEFA EURO 2016, at the latter end of that tournament too. But Wales have surrendered too many leads during the current qualifying campaign, and too many points have been dropped as a result. It could yet prove costly, but the confidence and belief that has defined this group clearly remains, and internally this campaign is far from over.
Chris Gunter summed up his international experiences when he spoke to the Welsh football press and media at the team base on Wednesday afternoon. “There’s not many things as a group we haven’t seen,” he explained. And he’s right. Since making his senior debut against New Zealand just over a decade ago, Gunter and his generation have been through the lowest of the lows in terms of failed campaigns, the highs of qualifying for EURO 2016 and subsequently reaching the last four, and the tragedy of manager Gary Speed’s untimely death in 2011 when he appeared to have been on the verge of turning around the fortunes of the national team.
— Mark Pitman (@UEFAcomMPitman) August 30, 2017
Now set to earn his 80th cap at the weekend, the reliably consistent right-sided defender is not too concerned about his personal milestone, and is far more focused on the task ahead. “It’s nice, but it’s not something you really overly think about about until you finish playing,” he added. “We’ve always said that wanted to sell-out our home games. It’s a pleasure to represent those fans and it’s great to be a part of that regardless of the number of caps. They know how much we appreciate them, and I don’t think we’ve let them down too many times in the past.”
Like most of his current international team-mates, Gunter’s defining international memory came last summer as his side upset the odds in France, and the Cardiff City youth product was quick to recognise the influence of the manager on what the team has achieved. “He’s done a really good job for us,” Gunter explained. “If you asked all the players I’m pretty sure they would want the gaffer to stay. He’s done something for this country that no-one else has done. We’ve improved as a team over that time and he’s been a massive part of it. He treats people right, and the way he coaches and sees the game means he’s always going to do well.”
— Wales (@FAWales) August 29, 2017
Aston Villa’s James Chester is another defender who has thrived for Wales under the guidance of Coleman, and while adapting to the Championship has not been easy for his club this season, Chester’s attentions are now focused on enjoying another memorable night with Wales. “We’re really looking forward to it,” he explained to the press on Wednesday. “We’ve had some big games in Cardiff in the past and we’re looking forward to experiencing another one. The next four games are pretty much ‘must-win’. It makes for a really good game that we’re really excited for.
“When the group came out we knew it would be difficult. But the confidence we took from the summer is something we wanted to build on. We’re still unbeaten and we can still qualify. Austria are one of the better teams in Europe so it’s always going to be a game to look forward to. We know it’s in our hands, and having experienced what we did last summer, it’s something we want to achieve again. It’s a real opportunity for us with Serbia and Ireland playing each other next week too.”
— Mark Pitman (@UEFAcomMPitman) August 30, 2017
With midfielder Joe Allen joining Neil Taylor on the sidelines through suspension for Saturday’s match, Coleman will again face the same adversity that has defined this qualifying campaign when comparing it to the last. Wales need their best players fit and ready for each and every match, and it was key players like Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale that produced when the pressure was on during the EURO 2016 qualifiers. However, injuries and suspensions have denied Wales the services of all their key players at certain points of the current campaign, and it is has had an inevitably negative impact.
The value of Joe Allen in the middle of Wales’ midfielder cannot be underestimated, and his suspension is a timely reminder of the superb goal he scored against Austria in the match in Vienna at the start of the campaign. His influence is dictated by his tireless work rate, while his quality in possession and tenacious, perfectly-timed ball recovery has helped to confirm his status as one of Coleman’s key men. But this is a squad used to dealing with adversity, and to date they have already come through the previous trials and tribulations of this campaign undefeated.
One of Wales’ strengths in France last summer was their ability to take everything in their stride and to embrace the pressure of the occasion. While other supposedly superior nations struggled under the weight of expectancy, Wales displayed all the attributes of a team very much in control of their situation. The pressure is now also on Austria, Serbia and the Republic of Ireland as Group D heads into the final few defining games, and while Coleman’s side have ground to make up on the leading pair, this is a squad of players that have already proved to the world that they can achieve anything.
— #WCQ (@FIFAWorldCup) June 11, 2017