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An inquest into Wales’ World Cup qualifying malaise

On July 6th 2016, the French city of Lyon would be the stage of another ‘oh so near’ moment to consign to the history books of Welsh football. Wales had reached the semi-finals of Euro 2016, topping a group containing British rivals England, and knocking out another UK rival in the shape of Northern Ireland as well as the much fancied Belgians along the way. It was their first major tournament appearance since the 1958 World Cup, the second major tournament appearance in their history, and their first European Championship. On the night however, it wasn’t to be Welsh talisman Gareth Bale’s night, the stage was set for his Real Madrid teammate, the mercurial Cristiano Ronaldo, whose fine headed goal sent Portugal on their way to a 2-0 victory.

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The Portuguese would of course go on to win the tournament, and exorcise the demons of 2004, but for beaten semi-finalists Wales, the dream was over. There was however a sense growing that the Welsh were in the midst of a golden footballing generation, and with the oratory of Chris Coleman- who despite a difficult start as national team coach built on the legacy of Gary Speed- a feeling that Wales could go on to reach further heights at the next major tournament: the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

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Were Wales to get there, it would be the first time they’d ever reached back-to-back tournaments, and it is a campaign which Chris Coleman has already claimed will be his last as Wales coach, indicating his intention to step down after the World Cup finals. But with Wales’ show at the European Championships ensuring they went into the group as top seeds, it was all looking so rosy and qualification should be an all-round academic affair shouldn’t it?

Only, so far, it certainly hasn’t proved the straightforward path to qualification that most anticipated.

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A 4-0 home win over Moldova gave Wales the dream start to their latest campaign, followed by a creditable 2-2 draw against second seeds Austria. So it started well, but the last two Welsh fixtures have put pain to any thoughts of qualification being an easy affair. Two disappointing home draws, firstly against minnows Georgia and secondly against Serbia, both thanks to late equalisers for the visitors, has left this promising Welsh side facing an uphill battle to reach Russia.

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They lie third in the group on six points, two behind second-placed Serbia who occupy the European qualification playoff spot and four behind group leaders the Republic of Ireland, who are on ten points. With that in mind, Wales are in serious danger of being cut adrift of automatic qualification if they continue to drop points, and with group leaders Ireland their next opponents away in Dublin, the showdown between the two in March could well be key, and already it looks set to be a fixture that Wales can ill afford to lose.

But what is behind Wales’ newfound inability to kill off matches like they did so ruthlessly during qualification for and in their run to the semi-finals of Euro 2016?

What Wales were able to rely on during their last qualifying campaign and during their run in France to the Euro 2016 latter stages was an element of unpredictability. Many of Europe’s lesser nations saw the Welsh as a side of equal stature and sought to play an attack-minded game against them. Only with Chris Coleman’s 3-5-2 formation, designed to tear the opposition apart on the counter, and with the world-class influence of Gareth Bale, Wales were able to play to their strengths and comprehensively sweep aside their opponents, as shown in their convincing 3-0 qualifying win over Israel, their 3-0 Euro 2016 group stage win over the Russians, and their two hard fought victories in qualifying and in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals against heavily fancied Belgium.

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It would be easy to point the finger toward the fact that Europe’s lesser sides are cottoning onto how Wales play, and with many regarding them amongst the continent’s top sides these days, teams are approaching their games against them with a far more defensive approach and are inviting Wales to break them down. As Israel showed in their defensive set-up in the Euro 2016 qualifiers during a 0-0 draw in Cardiff, breaking teams down who look to defend is something that Wales are yet to fully adapt to.

Only these qualification games have been different. Out of the three games so far where the Welsh have dropped points, they have actually scored first and then conceded the lead to draw the game. Twice they did so in Vienna against the Austrians, and twice they have done so in Cardiff in successive 1-1 draws against Georgia and Serbia.

The striking issue in both of the latter two fixtures in that list, is that Wales’ goals in both games were scored in the first-half by their talisman, Gareth Bale.

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Of course in the campaign’s first match, Coleman’s men were firing on all cylinders on the way to a 4-0 win over Moldova. Bale scored a brace that night, whilst Sam Vokes and Joe Allen also netted. Allen would also go on to score Wales’ opening goal in the 2-2 draw in Austria.

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What has been apparent though is a distinct lack of goals against the group’s stronger opposition from Wales’ arsenal of strikers. Sam Vokes netted against Moldova, yet despite his decent form in the Premier League for Burnley he has failed to score since for his country having started in each of their three recent draws. Hal Robson-Kanu, the hero of Wales’ historic Euro 2016 triumph against Belgium, has not scored an international goal since his sensational Cruyff turn and finish on the night, and has also struggled for form and football following a summer move to West Bromwich Albion. He is yet to score a goal for the Baggies, but does have an assist to his name.

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Granted in the first two of their draws, Wales did miss the creative presence of Aaron Ramsey, yet even he was helpless as Wales conceded late against the Serbs courtesy of Aleksandar Mitrovic’s 85th minute header. Minutes before however, the hosts had a chance to kill the game off only to see their chance come back off the woodwork before Serbia countered up the pitch to equalise. The man who spurned the chance, and once again got into the right position to do some damage, was Gareth Bale.

The lack of goals from Wales’ first choice strikers by-trade Vokes and Robson-Kanu can be perceived as a factor in Wales’ inability to kill off matches, but the statistics don’t lie as it is so often said, and they do point to an over-reliance on Real Madrid man Gareth Bale. He has netted in all but one of Wales’ four qualifiers so far, and although he has been getting on the scoresheet, what is becoming worryingly apparent for Wales is that he needs more help in attack to help bear the goalscoring burden. For it is clear that his exploits alone are no longer enough to win Wales their matches. If the side are going to be prone to defensive lapses, as a top-seeded nation, they absolutely must score more goals and distribute them more evenly across the side.

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The consistent inclusion of a fit-again Aaron Ramsey will no doubt help the Welsh cause, but one only has to look at the Welsh bench against Serbia to draw attention to a problem. With Vokes and Robson-Kanu both starting, the only other forward on the bench was Tom Lawrence, who on-loan from Leicester plies his trade in the Championship with Ipswich Town. To have been summoned by Coleman to the international fold, of course he can offer something to the side, as all of Wales’ so-called ‘lesser players’ proved when everything fell into place during their impressive run at the European Championships back in the summer.

But all that is already starting to seem like ancient history, and what will concern Chris Coleman the most is an obvious lack of strength in depth, particularly in the forward-line. Without the capacity to call upon extra quality, it is understandable why the added pressure of being viewed as one of the continent’s strongest sides and the burden of expectation now on Coleman’s underdogs may be weighing them down. After all, they weren’t expected to go as far as they did at the European Championships, nor were they really expected to qualify.

However following their successful showing in France, the subsequent hype means that a Wales side previously free of expectation and able to play without any pressure now has to deal with being expected to win, and that may be having a psychological effect. They have conceded the lead a total of four times already this campaign, whereas throughout their European adventure they were far more adept at seeing games out, only throwing a lead away having been ahead twice, one of those coming against England.

His team’s inability to see out games when playing on the counterattack is something that Chris Coleman has been been alerted to. For the first time in Wales’ last outing against Serbia, he switched from 3-5-2 to an attack-minded 4-4-2 in an attempt to help his team impose themselves more on the game. For 85 minutes it worked, until Mitrovic pounced late on to cancel out Gareth Bale’s goal on the half hour mark.

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The root cause of Wales’ sudden malaise isn’t definable at this point in time, and it likely is the culmination of several smaller factors which early on in the race for Russia have given Coleman’s Euro 2016 semi-finalists something of a mountain to climb. Though what will be lingering in his mind is that semi-final defeats have been known to be a bad omen in the football world.

Turkey reached the semi-finals of Euro 2008 and were not seen at a major tournament until the latest edition of the championships in France earlier this year, the Netherlands finished third at the 2014 World Cup and then failed to qualify at all for Euro 2016. Closer to home, England, who reached the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup, exited the group stage at Euro 1992 before failing to qualify for the 1994 edition of the World Cup.

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If Wales do become the latest team to be claimed by this ominous statistic, it may well spell doom for six years of hard work. Gareth Bale and co must not be complicit in allowing that to happen, if this rapid rise in Welsh football is to continue, and if Chris Coleman is to have the chance to write another piece of history before he steps down. The Republic of Ireland are next, and they will be just as determined to not help Wales on their way to writing more history as they look to pen a memorable chapter of their own. It will be a mouth-watering clash, and already it looks like being do or die for Wales, a defeat would see them seven points adrift of top-spot and qualification with just five games remaining. If they seek automatic qualification it is a must win, anything other than that and eyes will firmly be fixed towards second place and the lottery of the European Playoff Round. Russia isn’t out of reach by any means yet, but there’s not enough of a grip on qualification and on history as of yet, for a Welsh side tipped to qualify but yet to find another gear. Their best in this group is undoubtedly yet to come, but they will need it very, very soon.

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