A feature on Wales and their remaining games in 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying.
They were the two games, a year apart, that Wales manager Chris Coleman often reflects upon when asked about the key moments of his tenure in charge of the national team. A 6-1 defeat away to Serbia in September 2012 dictated that Coleman would have to put his own influence and ideas onto the side, and that for him to have any chance of successfully succeeding the late Gary Speed he would need to do things his own way. It was a long process, and by the time Serbia arrived in Cardiff one year later the changes had not been implemented to full-effect. A 3-0 reverse followed, but it sparked a revival in the side, and the next campaign would be famous for bringing the unparalleled success that culminated in the side reaching the semi-finals of UEFA EURO 2016. However, the 0-0 draw in Dublin a fortnight ago more than emphasised that what happened in France is now confined to the annals of Welsh football history, and another defining fixture against Serbia awaits.
Wales are still undefeated in Group D after five games, but four draws mean that the side need to win in Serbia to keep in touch with the leading pack. Qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup was always going to be a much tougher task, but the campaign now appears set to be defined by a minute of madness against the Republic of Ireland that will rule Gareth Bale and Neil Taylor out of the visit to Serbia in June. It was a frustrating campaign for Wales before the events in Dublin, with home draws against Georgia and Serbia testing the patience of the manager, and he will know that they were the games that have made the remaining task all the more difficult. But frustration is the right word to describe the campaign, as it is one minute of frustration that got the better of Bale and Taylor, and it is that frustration that may prove to be the overriding reason should the side fail to qualify.
Injuries problems have made this a frustrating season for Gareth Bale, and the Real Madrid star has missed a number of months of action as his club continue to challenge for both domestic and European honours. His return from injury a few weeks ago was almost immediately followed by a suspension as a frustrated Bale saw red. Bale cut a frustrated figure in the opening half against Ireland, struggling to keep possession, and the close attention that he received severely limited his opportunities. A late tackle on John O’Shea in the second half saw collect the yellow card that now keeps him out the next match, but it was temporarily forgotten less than a minute later, as Neil Taylor was sent off for the badly-timed tackle that resulted in Ireland captain Seamus Coleman suffering a broken leg.
Taylor, like the rest of his team, were frustrated in the knowledge that Bale had collected the booking he was desperate to avoid. This is the same Neil Taylor who struggled for form at Swansea City earlier in the season, and now finds himself playing the Championship with Aston Villa. It has been a frustrating and disruptive season for Taylor who went into the domestic campaign on the back of the highs brought about by Wales’ performances in France, and with club football proving to be a negative experience, there has always been international football to look forward to. However, emulating the success of the Euros has proved difficult for Wales in this latest campaign, and now Taylor will find himself out of contention through suspension as Chris Coleman and his side look to put things right without him and the talismanic figure of Bale.
Coleman has repeatedly said that this will be his last campaign, and should Wales find themselves out of contention with games remaining, there is no guarantee that he will see the campaign through. Now a return to Serbia will define what Wales have left to play for in their remaining few games, and with Bale suspended for what will be a difficult trip, the odds are stacked against Coleman and his side. But while the memories of that 2012 defeat will not have been forgotten by those players involved, it also offers the opportunity for redemption at the best possible time. The suspensions provide an opportunity for Coleman to add a fresh, new dimension to his side, and Tom Lawrence is expected to have his opportunity to step-up and replace Gareth Bale. The likes of Ben Woodburn could also feature. Coleman benefited from the faith in youth that his predecessors had, and as he prepares to leave his post, that may now be his parting legacy if a place in Russia moves any further out of reach.