THE ROAD TO WORLD CUP QUALIFICATION | SPORT PREVIEW
Rhys Richards analyses the path ahead for the Welsh men’s international football team as they take the first steps towards qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
If we were to rewind two years ago, the Welsh football team would be in a very difference place to where we see it now. September 2014 marked the start of the UEFA Euro 2016 campaign, where following the death of Gary Speed and Chris Coleman’s unconvincing start to life as Welsh manager, the bag of expectations was a mixed one.
It was not the start Coleman had hoped for, as Wales trailed 1-0 in the sixth minute to Andorra who had not scored a competitive goal for 4 years. Wales at this point were staring in the eyes of an unexpected defeat until a moment of Welsh wizardry, where Gareth Bale struck twice to dig the Dragons out of yet another hole.
It was this last gasp win that could be considered as the turning point in the team’s fortunes, as it appeared to give players the confidence to end a 50-year tournament drought. Much to the disbelief of the nation, we now sit here having competed in that illusive tournament having reached the semi-final. The Euro 2016 dust has nearly settled and now fans, players and staff are eagerly awaiting the start of the next qualifying campaign: the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
It is without doubt that the players will take to the pitch with the same hunger and the fans will take to the stands with the same excitement. In spite of this, let’s not forget that all of this comes with a slight underbelly of increased expectation, which I’m sure Coleman and co. will relish before embarking on their next footballing journey…the road to World Cup qualification.
Moldova (H) – Mon 5 September 2016: 7:45pm
Bale and the boys will hope to get off to a flying start against the lowest ranked team in the group. As we witnessed in France this summer, the fire power of Bale and a bouncing Welsh bunch should prove too much for Moldova. Despite this, a potential banana skin for Wales could be dealing with the pressure of being the group favourites. This is something the Welsh have found difficult in the past against Israel at home and Northern Ireland in the knockouts of Euro 2016.
Austria (A) – Thurs 6 Oct 2016: 7:45pm
A month later they’ll travel to Vienna for arguably one of the most challenging fixtures in group D. Austria qualified for Euro 2016 convincingly, however unlike Wales failed to impress whilst they were there. Nonetheless the home side will prove to be a stern test and may require some heroic defending from Ashley Williams and his defence. Having said this, Austria may have a thing or two to be concerned about themselves, with the link up play of Bale and Ramsey enough to trouble the best sides in the world.
Georgia (H) – Sun 9 Oct 2016: 5:00pm
Shortly after, the Cardiff City Stadium will welcome Georgia for the third match of the qualifying campaign. Despite failing to qualify for Euro 2016 with just 9 points, the Georgians under long-term manager Temur Ketsbaia recorded some impressive performances. One of which came against Scotland, which ultimately proved costly as the Scots then failed to qualify for France. Despite a growing Georgian belief, if Wales approach the game with the same spirit, unity and quality we saw over the summer then a straight forward home win should be on the cards.
Serbia (H) – Sat 12 Nov 2016: 7:45pm
The last time these sides met the dragons were left licking their wounds following a humiliating 6-1 defeat in Belgrade. The stage is set once again and Wales will be desperate to get their own back over a Serbia side with plenty of know-how. On the other hand, the Serbs will be itching to get back to winning ways following their prolonged absence from tournament football. They will do this by utilising their main man Nemanja Matić, who will attempt to carve open Wales’ defence with his outstanding passing ability.
Republic of Ireland (A) – Fri 24 March 2017: 7:45pm
This is a date most Welsh fans will be leaving free on their calendars as a trip to Dublin may be a little too convenient. Similarly to the Austria away trip, this match will be up there as one of the most difficult for Wales to overcome due to the home side’s steely determination. The Irish doors will be locked, which is why the Welsh will look to their galáctico Mr Bale to unlock them.
Serbia (A) – Sun 11 June 2017: 7:45pm
Six games in and the lads will travel to Belgrade for a summer city break. The Rajko Mitić stadium has a reputation of generating a hostile atmosphere which makes it even more strenuous for the visitors. The Welsh may have to adopt the classic football ethos “play the game, not the occasion” to give themselves the best chance of emerging unscathed from what is likely to be a tense encounter.
Austria (H) – Sat 2 Sept 2017: 7:45pm
After a lengthy spell away from Cardiff, Wales will return to take on the Austrians. With the campaign at this point coming to a close, fans can expect a nail-biting clash between two tactically astute outfits. With three games to go, results will start to shape the final group standings and will therefore require a stellar Welsh performance.
Moldova (A) – Tues 5 Sept 2017: 7:45pm
A fixture which presents a perfect opportunity for Wales to pick up valuable points. With the home side being the clear underdogs, a frustrating night could be on the cards for the visitors if Moldova sit back and defend. Should this be the case, Wales will look to their midfield maestro’s in Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey to pull the strings and stretch the Moldovan defence.
Georgia (A) – Fri 6 Oct 2017: 5:00pm
Before Wales can prepare for their final home match against the Republic of Ireland, they must travel to the Eastern edges of Europe to face Georgia once again. Vladimir Weiss’s side will look to the terrifying Tbilisi crowd to help force the Welsh Dragon back into its cave. On what could be a nervy night, the leadership of Ashley Williams and Chris Gunter may prove vital in order to keep the Welsh flame burning.
Republic of Ireland (H) – Mon 9 Oct 2017: 7:45pm
The road to World Cup qualification will come to an end against a rigid Republic of Ireland outfit. Both sides at this stage will hope to be in with a chance of qualifying which will certainly add to the occasion. The battle may also occur off the pitch with both sets of fans famous for generating party-like atmospheres, which could make this clash a thriller on the final match day.
Contrary to previous years, rather than licking their wounds, both players and fans will be licking their lips ahead of the most anticipated qualifying campaign in Welsh football history. The road to qualification is a long one and the players will look to the fans to provide them with enough fuel. Can Wales emerge from group D with an A?
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