Sport

Wounded Dragons have Mountain to climb

By Daniel Heard

Just over two years ago, Wales travelled to Brussels to take on Belgium in their fourth qualifying game for 2016 European Championships.

They came away from the King Baudouin Stadium with only a point, but not through lack of trying, with almost every outfield player acting as a defender for much of the game.

Gareth Bale even cleared off the line late on to preserve their clean sheet and leave them with eight points. What happened next was… well, it’s been well documented what happened next.

Beat the Belgians at home, qualified for a major tournament, first Euro Championships, topped the group, beat Northern Ireland, beat the Belgians again, lost to the eventual winners, but returned home as heroes.

Bale scored (some crackers), Hal Robson-Kanu’s Cruyff turn, Joe Ledley’s dancing! It was unbelievable.

Almost as unbelievable as where Wales now find themselves following their adventure in France.

Again, they’re four games into a qualifying campaign, this time for the World Cup in Russia in two years’ time, and are still unbeaten in the group, as they were at this stage in 2014.

It comes off the back of the third successive draw for Chris Coleman’s men, and all three of those having the lead before throwing it away.

The cruellest of which so far was no doubt Alexander Mitrovic’s header five minutes from time as Serbia snatched a late, possibly vital point in Cardiff last Saturday night to leave the hosts third in the table, trailing the Serbs and new group leaders, Martin O’Neil’s Republic of Ireland, who they face in Dublin in their next qualifier in March.

Is it that they still haven’t shaken off their hangover from the success in the summer? I mean, shouldn’t a team off the back of their best ever performance at a major finals, only their second ever major tournament, be brimming with confidence?

It was certainly there in the demolition of Moldova in the first game, but that was the last time Wales won, and, perhaps more worryingly, kept a clean sheet too.

Where has that defensive solidarity that saw off Belgium three times gone? The “five at the back” that the fans sing at the top of their lungs every game became four against Serbia.

Moving further up the pitch, few teams can boast having a holding midfield duo that were nominated for team of the tournament, and then of course there’s the eighty five million pound Galactico up front.

Alongside a guy released by Championship side Reading before they’d even touched down in France.

Is that it then? The depth? In all honesty, looking beyond the starting eleven that featured in qualifying last time around and in the Euro’s, there have been no real tactical changes, except when Coleman has been forced to do so through injury.

A full strength squad, bar the hugely influential Aaron Ramsey, put in a full strength performance against Moldova. But facing Austria out in Vienna, there was no Ramsey again, with Jonny Williams also absent, before Joe Allen, scorer of one of the goals of the group, hobbled off injured too, meaning he’d miss the tie with Georgia.

And how he was missed. A one-all draw against a side ranked over a hundred places below their hosts would have been bad enough had Wales not already squandered a lead twice in the previous game.

For the visit of Serbia, though Ramsey, Allen and Williams returned, Ben Davies, so crucial to the defensive set up, was now on the side-lines, joined soon after by his most likely replacement, James Collins.

Their play was exactly like their squad make-up, limited. While the togetherness of the camp was never in doubt during the championships, with Coleman having to chop and change this around injuries, maybe some of it has now warn a little thin.

Calling up uncapped youngsters from League One might do wonders for their individual self-confidence, but when opponents like Ireland and Serbia can name starting line-ups and benches filled with Premier League talent, it only highlights the worrying lack of depth that Wales have in their ranks.

And while I’m all for blooding youth with experience, now ideally is not the time.

But it looks as though there are few other options. That’s why David Vaughan found himself on the plane to France, as even though he had at least three better players ahead of him, his experience in the top flight (in several countries) counted in his favour.

As I say, this wasn’t an issue last time around, as by some miracle, injuries were minimal and not too disruptive.

Now, in a group that is, dare I say, a lot harder this time around, those injuries take their toll, on the shape, make-up and ultimate style of play of the team.

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