On 9th July 2015 Wales made history gaining their highest FIFA world ranking ever, reaching the top 10 for the first time. Since then the team have gone on to reach the dizzy new heights of international football, qualifying for a first major tournament since 1958. Their appearance at EURO 2016 sparked a new breed of life into the team and Wales made even more history as they knocked out Belgium and Northern Ireland whilst topping their group on the way to the semi-finals. Losing out to eventual winners Portugal was tough seeing as the squad got so close to the finale, but few can criticise the side for achieving the unimaginable.
Since Wales’ exploits in France business has resumed as usual for Chris Coleman and his team. Qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia now takes priority and navigating through a difficult group featuring Austria, Serbia and the Republic of Ireland amongst others will be tough. The group has provided a mixed bag of results so far for Wales however, with a 4-0 home drubbing over Moldova, a 2-2 draw away to Austria and an embarrassing 1-1 draw at home with minnows Georgia last week.
What Wales now need to ensure if they are to keep their status as a top 10 team is to find consistency. Qualifying for the World Cup through the automatic positions is an expectation of the team right now, which is something Wales have rarely experienced. Going into the summer in France fans were hopeful, but not expecting miracles. Now it’s time to realise that Wales are no longer an underdog team. A dismal second half performance against Georgia in Cardiff has shown cracks in the Welsh wide. Chris Coleman admitted his side were lucky to have taken away a point and so it is difficult to see if this game is just a minor setback for Wales or if it has exposed something much deeper and troubling for the team.
The numbers don’t echo the idea that Wales are struggling though. Since France they have managed to increase their average possession, goals scored and shots on target. Yes, I know that Moldova don’t pose the same threat as Belgium, yet in order to post the numbers they have been the players need to be just as motivated as they were in the summer. Furthermore Wales were without key players for some of their matches, one notable absentee was the talismanic Aaron Ramsey whose hamstring kept him out of the game. If the Georgia match showed anything to Chris Coleman, it must be that his side miss Ramsey and Joe Allen badly when they are not in the team. His words after the match show just how much that result resounded with him – “I’d have been amazed if we we’d gone through the campaign without a blip and without somebody giving you a little tap on the shoulder to just remind you how difficult it is at this level – we got one today for sure and I’m not used to being disappointed at the end of 90 minutes.” The result was more than a ‘little tap’ for Wales but Coleman is ensuring it does not affect his players too much and he has his sights firmly set on the future. He told the media after the match that “It’s not the end of the world, it’s only three games in, and we’ve got good games coming up – so this is a nice little test for us actually, we came back from the tournament (the European Championships) with our tails up and rightly so. But we’ve just had a little slap around the back of the head.”
The next set of qualifiers will be a difficult challenge for the side as they face Serbia at home, a side who won both of their games over the last international break including an impressive 3-2 win against Austria. Wales will be keen to put their qualifying campaign back on track with a win but this test will be much harder than anything Wales have faced before. The 1-1 draw with the Georgians is the first major setback Coleman has experienced from his team for quite some time. This will be a different type of pressure for the squad.
In France they played with freedom, knowing whatever happened they had made their country proud just by reaching the finals. Now the team need to overcome this hurdle, forgetting their previous outing and focusing solely on the next challenge. This is where fans will see the real Wales. They will need to dig in and get a result because that is what teams in the top 10 are capable of doing and neither Chris Coleman nor his team will be willing to lose their status without a fight.