Can Chris Coleman's history-makers write another chapter in Vienna?
It has been a rollercoaster few years for Welsh football. Having hit an all-time low in the FIFA World Rankings of 117th in August 2011, the renaissance of the national team began under Gary Speed, who masterminded three wins out of four in Euro 2012 qualifying. A 2–1 home win against Montenegro started the revival, with a 2–0 home win against Switzerland and a 1–0 away win against Bulgaria following, their one defeat coming in a 1–0 loss to Home Nation rivals England at Wembley. Subsequently, in October 2011, Wales had rapidly risen to 45th in the FIFA rankings. The match which followed was a 4–1 home win in a friendly match against Norway on 12 November 2011, the culmination of all Speed’s hard work which earned Wales the unofficial award for biggest movers of the year in the FIFA rankings table.
Tragically however, it proved to be Speed’s last match in charge of Wales, the manager tragically died two weeks later. The man who would step into his shoes in the international fold was Chris Coleman, but after his first two competitive games in charge ended in defeat at the hands of Belgium and Serbia, the latter a 6-1 drubbing, you could forgive Welsh football fans for thinking the revival was over before it began, as the national side failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
However, it would only be a matter of time before Coleman stamped his mark on an up and coming Welsh side. Then at Swansea City, Ashley Williams was handed the captaincy in place of Arsenal playmaker Aaron Ramsey, and the Welsh prepared to negotiate their historic Euro 2016 qualification group with Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cyprus, Israel and Andorra standing in their way. Their qualifying campaign high was a 1-0 home victory over Belgium, courtesy of a strike from talisman Gareth Bale. Their historic qualification was sealed in October 2015, where Wales slipped to their only defeat of the qualifying campaign in Zenica against Bosnia-Herzegovina, but a Cypriot victory over Israel ensured the Welsh would go to France; their first major tournament since the World Cup in 1958.
The rest is already consigned to the history books, an impressive run all the way to the semi-finals, including topping their group ahead of England and making it all the way to the semi-finals, where they finally came unstuck against eventual champions Portugal, led by Bale’s Real Madrid teammate Cristiano Ronaldo.
After becoming the first British side to reach the semi-finals of a European Championship since England did so in 1996, Wales’ FIFA ranking fluctuated to an all-time high of eighth, before levelling out at tenth. That was enough to see them enter qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia as Number One seeds in their group, their adversaries set to be Austria, Serbia, Republic of Ireland, Moldova and Georgia, as Coleman’s side look to make more history and qualify for a World Cup tournament for the first time this century.
This qualifying campaign has already started in dream fashion, with a 4-0 win in Cardiff over group winners Moldova ahead of Friday’s key trip to Vienna to face Number Two seeds Austria, who despite topping their qualification group for Euro 2016 with nine wins and a draw went on to bow out at the group stages in France. The fire has already been stoked ahead of the match at Austria’s Ernst Happel Stadium, manager Marcel Koller having dismissed Wales as “lucky” to have got as far as they did in the European Championships.
Coleman refused however to be drawn in, claiming his team handled the pressure better than bigger sides simply because they were a “good team”. By all accounts, the Welsh did end up in a more favourable knockout bracket on paper, but still had to produce to get beyond a stubborn Northern Ireland team, before showcasing some of their best football of the tournament to see of Belgium again in a 3-1 quarter-final triumph. But now it is all history, and if Wales are to continue to dine at world football’s top table, moments like this need to become a regularity rather than preciously spare.
Opponents Austria are ranked 16 places below Coleman in 26th, and opened their group campaign with a 2-1 victory in Tbilisi over Georgia. They sit below Wales therefore only on goal difference, and after a disappointing Euro 2016 where they only picked up two draws and a defeat, Koller’s men will go into the Vienna clash with an obvious point to prove.
The last meeting between the teams was back in 2013, where Gareth Bale scored one goal and assisted another for Sam Vokes as Wales ran out 2-1 winners in a friendly at Swansea City’s Liberty Stadium. The Real Madrid forward, formerly of Southampton and Tottenham, now has 24 goals in 62 appearances for his country, and Austria will be sure to keep tabs on Wales’ talisman in Vienna, who is four goals away from equalling Ian Rush’s record as the country’s record goalscorer.
Bale has already proven the difference so often in a Wales shirt. He had netted key strikes in qualifying for Euro 2016 against Andorra and Belgium, followed by direct free-kicks against Slovakia and England in France to name merely a few, and already off the mark this campaign against the Moldovans, Koller and his team recognise he can win games on his own, and will be determined not to give him the freedom of the Ernst Happel Stadium pitch as they themselves seek to overhaul Coleman’s Wales and go top of the group.
The ramifications are of course very different this campaign. Wales eventually finished runners-up in their qualification group for Euro 2016 and progressed automatically to France. On this occasion only the group winners go to Russia, with the runners-up entering a seeded playoff phase, so if Wales are to make it to back-to-back tournaments for the first time in their history, topping their group would be the most straightforward way to do it.
Their showdown with the Austrians however will be an interesting marker as to how far Wales have come. Even in the latter stages of qualifying, Wales suffered from the pretence of being considered one of Europe’s better teams, as sides such as Israel shut up shop against them in Cardiff and successfully held them to a goal-less draw. Austria, given the side that they are, are much more likely to start on the front foot, enabling Wales to come out and play their own contain and counter attack game which has proven the peril of several sides already, including a talented Belgian team on more than one occasion.
Wales will go to Vienna without Aaron Ramsey, as the Arsenal playmaker misses out for a third straight competitive game for his country with a hamstring problem. Injuries elsewhere have afflicted stand-in goalkeeper Danny Ward, forward Simon Church and Crystal Palace winger Jonny Williams. Austria’s only enforced change may be that of Martin Harnik, who has succumbed to injury, with Marcel Sabitzer set to replace him, their only change from their opening qualifying win in Tbilisi, which means talents such as David Alaba, Zlatko Junuzovic, Marc Janko and Marko Arnautovic will be on show in Vienna.
On paper, it may well be their toughest away trip of the campaign, with other daunting visits to Belgrade and Dublin yet to come, but more than 4000 Wales fans are expected to make the trip to Vienna to roar on their side, and Chris Coleman will know that his team must be able to pick up points in difficult places if they are to continue to make history. A heavy presence of Welsh support so often proved the difference in France however, and there is every opportunity that they will do so again.
Predicted Austria starting XI Predicted Wales starting XI
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Austria struggled at home in their last qualifying campaign and won by a one goal margin in three out of five of their Euro 2016 qualifying games. Despite the fact such opposition included the likes of Russia and Sweden, both teams were out of sorts and this shows an unwanted tendency of struggling to break teams down and lacking the attacking quality of other top European nations.
Wales on the other hand only lost once away from home in their last qualifying campaign against Bosnia-Herzegovina and gained a credible draw in Brussels against Belgium. Coleman’s side will come into this match full of confidence after their Euro 2016 campaign over the summer, but although the hosts will be without Martin Harnik they will be determined to prove a point, particularly to spare the blushes of their manager Marcel Koller who declared Wales were lucky in their run to the Euro 2016 semis.
With all that in mind, our prediction is for the match to end in a 1-1 draw, which both managers will be happy with in a campaign where both are expected to at least make the playoff round.
Featured Image: All Rights Reserved by Mark Pitman.
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