Likening relegation from the Premier League to a skydive is pretty apt. Three clubs each season are pushed out of the cosy £70m-a-season ‘Promised Land’ gravy plane and left to hope that parachute payments will save them from a catastrophic collision with the earthly consequences of paying mediocre footballers too much money.

Premier League Football League

This ‘parachute’ consists of four annual payments intended to reduce the potentially disastrous financial impact of relegation. Next season, the total payments due to each relegated club will increase by about £11m. During their first season in the Championship relegated clubs will receive £23m, while their competitors will only get around £2.3m of ‘solidarity’ money. Recently relegated clubs will have a vast budget in comparison to their rivals. It’s not surprising that the Football League is considering radical measures; salary caps or withholding that solidarity payment, to try to maintain a competitive balance within the Championship.

The Premier League argue that the payments aren’t proving to be overly influential on competition. Out of the current top six in the Championship, only Hull City are receiving the windfall. But that’s not presenting the full picture – since 2006/07, nine of the 18 clubs promoted have been receiving them.

But the biggest problem is that parachute payments are inspiring financial suicide among clubs not receiving them. Look at some of this season’s top six. Cardiff City announced a loss of £13.6m in 2011/12 with a debt of around £80m. It’s a similar story at Leicester, £50m in debt and a loss of £15.6m in the same year. Though bankrolled by foreign investors, neither club’s future is particularly rosy without the prospect of promotion to ease the balance sheet. Even Hull, who have parachute payments, lost £20m during their first season out of the top flight and £9m the year after. Though teams have bucked the trend to be promoted without vast debts or overspending, they aren’t the norm – Championship clubs spend £4 for every £3 of revenue.

The Football League have realised that this situation isn’t sustainable – Financial Fair Play has been introduced to try to curb overspending. When the League has the power to sanction clubs for exceeding certain losses, in 2014/15, parachute payments will take on huge importance. With clubs limited to spending within their means, those with parachute payments will have an even greater advantage than they do now. The dangers of unsustainable debt may be diminished, but potentially at the cost of a competitive Championship.

The inherent problem is that the Premier League is a global brand capable of dwarfing the income that the Championship can generate. Such a vast difference of incomes between the top two divisions is bound to create enormous difficulties for clubs moving between them. Though the Football League is searching for solutions to keep the Championship competitive and financially prudent, they’ll never bridge the income gap from below. A salary cap would prove incredibly problematic for relegated sides and withholding £2.3m from clubs receiving ten times that amount wouldn’t be effective.

The only permanent fix would be for the Premier League to abandon parachute payments altogether and adopt a fairer model of distributing their enormous cache of cash. A good starting point would be to take the current parachute payments and distribute them evenly among Championship clubs – the solidarity payments would increase to around £7.5m. Hardly perfect, but a step in the right direction.

The Championship is not a minor competition. It’s the fourth most attended football league in the world and its best asset is its unpredictable and fiercely competitive nature. Though teams have recently been maintaining this competition through overspending to match those with parachute payments, that can’t and won’t continue. Therefore the only way to keep the Championship at its best is for the Premier League to start kicking clubs out the door without a parachute, while giving the rest of English football a little more to survive on.

You could be forgiven for getting a little tired of the Cardiff v Leicester fixture. The two sides will meet tonight for the twelfth time since Leicester returned to the Championship. Because both teams have consistently been pushing for promotion, these fixtures tend to be of utmost importance – always tense and cagey. Cardiff lead the league, but need a win to keep the chasing pack at arm’s length, while Leicester could do with a confidence boost to help consolidate their place in the play-off positions. It’s set to be a crucial encounter.

Here’s a look at some of the more memorable recent matches between the teams.

Andy King

Starting a run of fixtures that would see the clubs meet in the league and both English cups, the Bluebirds and Foxes were drawn together for a fourth round FA Cup tie in 2009. Both sides took the lead before Peter Whittingham scored an extraordinary free kick from near the corner flag to get Cardiff back level, then injury time goals from Chris Burke and Ross McCormack put the Bluebirds in the fifth round of the cup. The riveting, back and forth match gave a hint that some excellent clashes were to come.

In what many fans would describe as Cardiff’s best ‘backs to the wall’ performance at the Cardiff City Stadium, the Bluebirds scraped a 2-1 home win over their play-off rivals in March 2010 to bolster their flagging play-off hopes having lost to them just two weeks prior. Though the home side looked comfortable at half time thanks to Ross McCormack and Peter Whittingham, the man who would prove to be a thorn in the side of Cardiff’s defenders throughout that season, Steve Howard, pulled one back for Leicester. The Cardiff defence, already patched up with full back Paul Quinn as a makeshift central defender, was really tested when James Vaughan was put through on goal. Gabor Gyepes though, was prepared to do whatever it took to stop Vaughan scoring. It took a full on rugby tackle. With Gyepes dismissed and Cardiff effectively down to nine men after Chris Burke pulled up injured, their back four, consisting of three full backs and a winger, held on in the biblical rain to deny Leicester an equaliser.

Gabor Gyepes' TackleBut that epic encounter proved to be just a taste of the incredible pair of matches that were to follow. After Cardiff ended the 2009/10 league season in fourth and Leicester in fifth, they were due to meet for the fourth and fifth times that season in the play-offs.

The first leg at, what was then known as, the Walkers Stadium took place on a gloriously sunny May afternoon. In the end, Leicester felt aggrieved to lose to Peter Whittingham’s brilliant free kick that was smashed in off the inside of Chris Weale’s post. That goal sparked a frantic last ten minutes. The Foxes had two penalty shouts turned down and David Marshall made a couple of wonder saves to make sure Cardiff had a lead to take back to South Wales. The small lead proved vital.

It all looked to be going swimmingly for Cardiff when Michael Chopra beat the offside trap to give the Welshmen a 2-0 aggregate lead in the second leg. But Leicester showed their resolve, to make it the best play-off tie that the Championship has seen yet. Shortly after Chopra’s goal, Matty Fryatt, after a neat one two with that man Steve Howard, pulled one back for Leicester. Just ten minutes later Howard again caused havoc as his header flicked off Mark Hudson into the Cardiff net, which meant that Leicester had drawn level at 2-2. The previously boisterous home crowd were stunned when Andy King put Leicester ahead just after half time.

The tie had been completely reversed. Cardiff struggled and laboured to create good chances, while Jack Hobbs nearly put the match beyond Cardiff as his header was hooked off the line by Peter Whittingham. But Whittingham was unruffled when just minutes later he swept away a penalty to level the match at 3-3 on aggregate. Chances for both sides followed, for Cardiff both Whittingham and Jay Bothroyd hit the bar while Michael Chopra had an effort saved off the line, then Steve Howard drew a brilliant save from David Marshall. A tense period of extra time passed without score, so penalties followed.

Yann Kermorgant

Tension almost unbearable, players from both sides calmly and excellently slotted their penalties until the shoot-out score was 3-3. It was the turn of Leicester’s Frenchman, Yann Kermorgant. He ambled to the penalty spot, placed the ball and took the worst chipped Panenka penalty of all time. It didn’t even reach the goal-line, allowing David Marshall to simply bat the ball down with his left hand. Mention the name Kermorgant to a Leicester fan and even now they’ll visibly cringe. Mark Kennedy then slotted his kick for Cardiff, meaning that Martyn Waghorn had to score to keep Leicester in it. Despite striking what looked a good penalty, Waghorn’s shot was superbly saved by Marshall, sparking pandemonium in the stands and a joyous pitch invasion. But there was a truly classy act by the veteran Kennedy, who ignored his celebrating teammates in an effort to console the distraught youngster Waghorn.

Cardiff went on to lose a similarly back and forth final 2-3 to Blackpool, meaning that they would face the Foxes for the next three seasons. Plenty of close league encounters followed and Cardiff again edged Leicester in a penalty shoot-out on their way to the League Cup final in 2012.

These two teams are by now the most familiar of foes, but there’s no sign that this familiarity is breeding anything other than a strong desire to escape the Championship. They will both be desperate for a win that will lessen the likelihood of facing each other yet again in this division.

Ticket prices are the latest issue to prompt debate in British football. It’s yet another thing that fans aren’t happy about, but are they finally ready to start working together to oppose aspects of the game they’re not happy with?

Arsena's Emirates Stadium - too pricey for City fans.

Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium – too pricey for many City fans.

It’s safe to say that most football fans think that tickets are getting far too expensive. Arsenal have just hit the headlines after it was reported that Manchester City sent back 900 away tickets that had gone unsold for their match at the Emirates – priced at the, frankly extortionate, rate of £62. Meanwhile, there are reports that Tottenham will charge some Arsenal fans £71 for a ticket to their derby. Going to watch your team just once surely shouldn’t cost the same as a whole month of Sky Sports HD.

Two years ago, the Gunners were also the first to charge over £100 for a regular match ticket. And it’s not just the hugely popular top flight clubs in the wealthy capital that seek to extort their fans; in the Championship Cardiff supporters were charged £42 to see their side take on Leeds at Elland Road last season, well above the norm for the division. Complaints from fans tend to prompt a rather obvious question; ‘well, why don’t they do something about it?’ Is it really that easy?

There are murmurings that British fans are starting to regard German football with envy; if not for the football itself, but for the experience – full stadiums, cheap tickets, large standing sections, good transport links, and perhaps most importantly, the freedom to cradle a cold pint during the match itself. These luxuries make the German terraces seem like a footballing utopia. But there is another aspect to the German game we should also take note of, and that is the way that supporters will unite to protest things that really matter. They do something about it.

For three weekends in a row, a supporter protest against plans for a security crackdown left German grounds silent for the first 12 minutes of matches. This week the protest was called off after fans’ groups were invited for talks with the German Football League. Back in 2010, a price hike of some standing tickets (over the €20 mark – only £17!) led to boycotts by fan movements, even for the huge derby game between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04. Tickets there remain cheap, while in Britain, prices continue to rise relentlessly.

Of course, the biggest difference between German and English football is that in the Bundesliga all but one of the teams are majority owned by fans. In fact, that arrangement is enshrined in league rules which require members to own 51% of the club, a far cry from liberal English ownership. Immediately, this gives the benefit of having a say in how clubs are run. In the Premier League, only Swansea City have a fan representative on the club’s board of directors. But it’s not just the running of individual clubs that presents problems for fans wishing to have a say on ticket prices or standing sections. These issues are relevant to supporters of all teams, so why can’t British fans raise a collective voice like their German counterparts?

A quick browse of the twitter debate gives a clear indication of one problem – fans are just too partisan. Now don’t get me wrong, I love the feeling of terrified excitement on derby day as much as any passionate supporter, but all too often people just toss abuse or rule out complaints of others because of the team they follow. If fans can’t put aside these petty differences on topics that matter to them, then their voice will never be loud enough to rise above all the dissenting tribal shouts.

Secondly, for decades their concerns were simply ignored; football supporters in Britain were treated as the lowest of the low, violent cattle to be herded to and from games. Granted, this attitude was fostered, in part, by hooliganism, but that still doesn’t excuse the behavior of an establishment so obviously keen to ignore (and silence) the voice of a pretty significant section of society. The shocking Hillsborough revelations are proof that for a long time there were no ears willing to hear fans’ protests, even if they had worked together. The tireless efforts and recent successes of Hillsborough campaigners prove that it is always possible to be heard, even in the face of great adversity.

But are fans now starting to put rivalry aside to campaign on the issues that matter? Supporter groups throughout the country are working towards a positive answer to that question. Today it was reported that Manchester United and Liverpool supporters’ trusts are to launch a campaign with the Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF) and Supporters Direct calling for a cap on away ticket prices. They are seeking the involvement of other fan groups in the top flight to pressure clubs into introducing a cap on away ticket prices.

Supporters Direct and the FSF are spearheading the case for increasing fan consultation and representation; hope for change rests upon their successful collaboration with fans. The former, set up by the UK government, promotes supporter ownership and involvement in clubs, while the latter has come to the fore recently with their campaign for safe standing sections in stadia. It’s a popular goal given that 9 out of 10 fans would like to be able to choose to sit or stand at matches.

Campaigns like these are yet to succeed in Britain, but if they do, supporters will have crossed an important threshold, one that may enable them to bring about more changes they want in the game they hold so dear.

Football Supporters’ Federation website

So, it’s Christmas and we’re halfway through this season’s Championship, the league is as competitive as ever. Unusually, both the relegated and promoted sides have struggled in the second tier so far, making those crucial top-6 spots even more up-for-grabs than usual. How have the next six teams gotten on and how will they fare?

chris wood

Millwall

Millwall have got Wood. Chris Wood that is, and the West Brom loanee has been in superb form during his spell at the New Den, netting eleven times in nineteen games. Their upturn in form coincided with his arrival, after which Kenny Jackett’s men went on an impressive thirteen match unbeaten run. January may be frustrating for the Lions – with Wood’s loan set to expire, several Championship teams are reported to be courting the New Zealander who has been so crucial for them.

Rating:            A

Prediction:     Could fall out of the running after January.

Leeds United

Neil Warnock and Leeds, surely they were always destined to be united. With a takeover by Dubai-based GFH Capital now completed, the prickly Yorkshireman is expected to have funds to strengthen his squad in January. He wasn’t given a significant sum to spend in the summer, but still added to his squad shrewdly, El Hadji Diouf in particular proving that he’s still worthwhile. Luciano Becchio has been an ever-reliable goal threat, but their defence just hasn’t been solid enough – they’re the only team in the top half with a negative goal difference. All eyes are on Warnock’s manoeuvres in January, if he does well they’ll mount a good challenge.

Rating:            C

Prediction:     Favourites for this season’s late charge up the table?

Will Buckley

Brighton & Hove Albion

The Championship’s second stingiest side started well, managing five consecutive victories in September. Though tight at the back, they’ve drawn far too many matches since then, a trait which has seen them slide just out of the reckoning. Will Buckley has been in good form for the Seagulls, scoring five and providing as many for his teammates. With Southampton Boss Nigel Adkins reportedly after the wide-man, it could be a long January for the Brighton faithful. Still, if a sale is made and Gus Poyet reinvests wisely, they have a good chance of making the play-offs with a solid defence to build on.

Rating:            C

Prediction:     Upper mid-table. Could easily push into the play-offs.

Derby County

Since their relegation in 2008, Derby have mostly flirted with the lower reaches of the Championship table. Boss Nigel Clough has been shackled financially, so a top half finish would be a good achievement. They’re yet to have a stretch of really good form, only managing consecutive victories twice, but if they keep hold of their young talent, especially the mercurial Will Hughes, this season could be an important foundation for the Rams to build on next year.

Rating:            B

Prediction:     Sneaking into upper mid-table.

Billy Sharp

Nottingham Forest

Considering the quality in their squad, it’s fairly safe to say that Forest are under-performing in the league so far. Though their new Kuwaiti owners have appreciated that it may be a transitional season for Forest, the team are expected to make the play-offs. Like Brighton, they’re guilty of drawing too many matches but also they’ve struggled to find the net at home. Forest need to improve their first half performances and keep more clean sheets, if they can then Billy Sharp and Simon Cox will be scoring winners rather than equalisers.

Rating:           D

Prediction:    Just missing out on the play-offs.

Blackpool

Since leading the table back in August, Blackpool have been a team on the slide. After three consecutive wins to open the season the Seasiders have not managed back to back victories, a record which has contributed to their steady tumble down the table. The decline has only been halted by some good results in December, but any hope for an improvement may be dashed by Liverpool’s interest in buying back Tom Ince. The tricky forward has scored or set up more than half of their goals, so replacing him may be an impossible task for Michael Appleton.

Rating:           D-

Prediction:   Will have done well to arrest the slide and finish higher than twelfth.

So, it’s Christmas and we’re halfway through this season’s Championship, the league is as competitive as ever. Unusually, both the relegated and promoted sides have struggled in the second tier so far, making automatic promotion even more up-for-grabs than usual. How are the top six shaping up? Check back later for the rest of the division…

bellamy leicester

Cardiff City

The rebranded Bluebirds have taken the Christmas #1 spot this year after extensive strengthening in the summer. Their position so far is down to imperious home form (bar a stunning upset by Peterborough), while in recent weeks they have turned their abysmal away record around with a scintillating display at Blackburn and a resilient smash and grab at Leicester. Cardiff are perhaps lacking a dependable goal-scorer – the loss of Nicky Maynard may prompt Malky Mackay to add more forward options in January. They may be joint top scorers, but they’ve shared the goals around – no-one has hit double figures yet. Also, a tendency to leak goals away from home must be fixed if Cardiff are to finally banish their promotion hoodoo. Nevertheless, with captain Mark Hudson in ‘brick wall mode’ at the back and Craig Bellamy lauding his teammates as “the most honest and hard-working group I’ve ever worked with,” things are looking good for the Bluebirds.

Rating:           B+

Prediction:    Automatic promotion. Surely they can’t mess it up this time?

Hull City

Hull have just crept into the top two off the back of an impressive run of four consecutive wins, three of which have come away from home. And it is their form away from the KC stadium that has provided a foundation for the team to climb high in the table, for the Tigers boast the best away record in the division with an impressive seven wins. Stephen Quinn and Sone Aluko have been two great additions by Steve Bruce and they’ve slotted in nicely with Robert Koren to provide a cutting edge that Hull were lacking last season. To really cement one of the auto spots they may have to improve their record at the KC, but that won’t be a necessity if they can keep up their healthy points haul away from home.

Rating:           A

Prediction:    A good chance of an auto spot. Home record might drop them into the play-offs.

zaha

Crystal Palace

Definitely the surprise package of the division so far, Palace have defied the off-season doubters to be just off the top at the half-way point.  After a stuttering start with a trio of league defeats, the south Londoners burst into life and even a mid-term managerial change couldn’t disrupt their unexpectedly superb form. Excellent at coming from behind to win, they’ve picked up the most points from losing positions in the division, but perhaps need to fix a habit of conceding late equalisers, as they have in their last three fixtures. They bagged some excellent summer bargains, including Yannick Bolasie and Damien Delaney, but all the plaudits have gone to homegrown wonderkid Wilfried Zaha. Though Ian Holloway is adamant that his star man is going nowhere in January, there are sure to be plenty of top-level suitors willing to stretch the Eagles’ resolve. The big question about Palace is whether they have the strength in depth necessary for automatic promotion. January will be crucial for their prospects.

Rating:           A+

Prediction:    Maybe limping into the play-offs. Lacking the squad depth to push for autos.

Middlesbrough

Tony Mowbray has steadily shaped his squad since taking the reins at the Riverside, this year proving to be no exception. Andre Bike and George Friend have strengthened the ‘Boro defence alongside the return of the experienced Jonathan Woodgate. At the other end, Scott McDonald has bagged nine goals so far but Mowbray will want his other strikers to start weighing in with a few more goals. They’ve only been second to Palace in picking up points from a losing position but they also have a tendency to switch off at the back, conceding a few too many goals at the end of each half. Though their record against teams in the bottom half of the table is the best in the league, they really need to start taking points off the teams around them to mount a serious challenge for the top.

Rating:            B

Prediction:     Play-offs.

knockaert

Leicester

Leicester’s buy of the summer was Anthony Knockaert – the mazy winger is a thrill to watch. Their problem so far though has been an inability to take the points from games they’ve dominated, this trait clearly on display during their 0-1 defeat to Cardiff, the Foxes peppered the Cardiff goal but failed to find the net for the first time at home this season. They’ve been resolute in defence, conceding less than a goal a game so far – the best record in the division. It’s worth noting that they’re always in with a chance as they’re yet to lose by more than a single goal. This trait will stand them in good stead if they can improve on their performances at the other end of the pitch, either intensive finishing practise or, even better, a January addition will do wonders for them.

Rating:            B

Prediction:     If they can be a bit more clinical, they will be a threat to the top two. Autos/play-offs.

Watford

Following a takeover by the Pozzo family in the summer, Gianfranco Zola was swiftly installed at Vicarage road where he was joined by no less than fourteen loan players, mostly from the owners’ other clubs, Udinese and Granada. Surprisingly though, after such a tumultuous off-season, the Hornets have gone about their business relatively under the radar, recently creeping into the play-off spots. They’ve undoubtedly improved recently following a pretty mediocre start, but perhaps that was to be expected with so many new, temporary faces having to gel. If the owners can drop in some more quality in January they could be a threat to the play-off places, but Zola has got his work cut out to keep so many loan players happy and on form.

Rating:            B-

Prediction:     Play-offs a step too far? Depends on whether they can build on their recent form.

Craig Bellamy made the difference for Cardiff as they built on their impressive home form with a dominant second half performance against Neil Warnock’s Leeds.

Craig Bellamy is congratulated on his stunning goal by Cardiff captain Mark Hudson. Credit: PA

Leeds fans could perhaps be forgiven for being pessimistic about this fixture – their last win against Cardiff was in 1984 – and those in their good away support were dealt a blow almost immediately when Ross McCormack fell awkwardly during a strong but fair tackle from Jordon Mutch. The former Cardiff forward immediately waved to the bench to signal his discomfort, and after a lengthy stoppage he was stretchered off to be replaced by Luke Varney.

In his programme notes, Malky Mackay said that Cardiff were eager to get back into action following their dismantling of Wolves two weeks ago, but that did not look the case during a first half bereft of any real quality from either side. Heidar Helguson spurned the best chance just before the break, heading over when he found himself completely unmarked from Peter Whittingham’s outswinging corner.

The early loss of McCormack had given Leeds a real lack of attacking options with the ball on the floor and Neil Warnock attempted to remedy this with the introduction of bad-boy El Hadji Diouf at half time, but he was to have little impact, Leeds mostly resorted to direct tactics throughout. Instead, it was Cardiff who started to exert more influence on the match after the break.

Tommy Smith and Craig Noone both repeatedly turned in from their wings to fashion chances, either to be denied by Paddy Kenny in the Leeds goal or scrambled away by their resolute back four. Noone cut inside to beautifully curl the ball 30 yards over the Leeds defence and onto Smith’s foot at the back post, but he couldn’t keep his first time shot down.

Another good opportunity fell to Mark Hudson, who had loitered up front and found Kenny to be equal to his header across goal. A goal would have been a fitting reward for the Cardiff skipper who was simply faultless at the back all match.

As the Bluebirds struggled to make the most of these opportunities, Malky Mackay looked to substitute Craig Bellamy. Bellamy had recently admitted that he was still struggling to come to terms with the death of Gary Speed, but he didn’t show it on the pitch as he looked sharp and determined straight away. It was a free-kick following Tonge’s foul on Nicky Maynard near the corner of the box that gave Bellamy a chance to open the scoring. He did so spectacularly, driving a rising shot into the top corner of the Leeds net, leaving Paddy Kenny to dive at thin air.

Minutes later, Cardiff doubled their lead with a penalty. Maynard wormed his way goal-side of Tom Lees in the box where he went down under pressure. Up stepped Peter Whittingham who smoothly stroked the ball home to make it 2-0.

Just as it was looking to be an easy finish for Cardiff, Leeds’ Jamaican international Rodolph Austin smashed in a free kick from 30 yards, but perhaps Cardiff stopper David Marshall could have done better to keep the shot out.  With the home fans wary of a come-back, Leeds tried to remove their deficit but were unable to create any chances better than Lee Peltier’s mistimed header – Cardiff still looked the more likely to take a deserved three points. The Bluebirds now have three wins from three in their ‘lucky’ red kit at home.

Man of the Match: Mark Hudson

Attendance: 23,836

Referee: Paul Tierney

Teams

Cardiff City

(4-4-2)

01. David Marshall

02. Kevin McNaughton

03. Andrew Taylor

05. Mark Hudson ©

12. Matthew Connolly

07. Peter Whittingham

18. Jordon Mutch (Gunnarsson – 76’)

14. Tommy Smith (Y)

16. Craig Noone (Bellamy – 64’)

22. Heidar Helguson

23. Nicky Maynard (Cowie – 83’)

Leeds United

(4-1-3-2)

01. Paddy Kenny

02. Lee Peltier ©

03. Adam Drury (Diouf – 46’)

04. Tom Lees

05. Jason Pearce

08. Rodolph Austin (Y)

10. Luciano Becchio

14. Aidan White

18. Michael Tonge (Y)

25. Samuel Byram

44. Ross McCormack (Varney – 5’)

Chris Coleman’s Wales team will look to get their qualifying campaign off to a good start tomorrow, but opponents Belgium may be too tough.

Chris Coleman will be hoping that his team can improve on recent performances.

A year ago today Wales had just fallen to a narrow 1-0 defeat to England at Wembley. In truth, Gary Speed’s side had matched the English and had it not been for a late miss by Robert Earnshaw, they would have left Wembley with a deserved draw. But the performance was the key. Wales were not outclassed as they had been in the home fixture six months prior. Speed’s side was a work in progress, but progress was quick. Two wins over Switzerland and Bulgaria saw them finish their Euro 2012 campaign on a high, and an excellent 4-1 friendly win over Norway gave a glimmer of hope to Welsh fans looking forward to the qualification campaign for Brazil 2014.

Twelve months later and that hope has gone missing in the aftermath of the tragic loss of Speed. Chris Coleman has been given the difficult task of building on Speed’s work but he is yet to have the team playing with the same style and success as his predecessor – Wales are yet to score with him in the dugout. Going by his two matches in charge,  2-0 losses to both Mexico and Bosnia and Herzegovina, Wales could be in danger of falling back into an era of abject performances and player withdrawals. But, one must not be too quick to judge upon friendly matches, especially with a new manager – it took Speed until his fourth game in charge for Wales to earn his first win. Coleman can only be hopeful that his side will show their best when the pressure is on.

Wales have been drawn in a tricky group for the World Cup qualifiers. With Croatia as clear favourites and Macedonia as group minnows, the other four teams, (Belgium, Serbia, Scotland and Wales) all sit within seven places of each other in the FIFA world rankings. The key to success in such a tight group will be solid home form, since each side should be quite capable of taking points from another.

Coleman’s campaign kicks off tomorrow against Belgium but unfortunately his squad has been steadily eroded by a long string of injuries. Wales will be without eight players, including usual starters Craig Bellamy, Wayne Hennessey and Neil Taylor. Crucially though, the trio of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen are fit. If they are to have any hope of a positive result, then these three will have to perform to their best to outclass a star-studded Belgian team.

However, in recent years the Belgians have been tarnished with the tag of under-achievers, their team often amounting to less that the sum of its undoubtedly talented parts. But following a 4-2 win over the Dutch in August, the Red Devils will be more than hopeful of mounting a successful qualifying campaign. The Belgian side is now full of top class talent, with several players recently earning moves to join an already established Premier League contingent, and in their captain Vincent Kompany they can claim to have one of the world’s finest defenders.

Conversely, it is in defence where Wales may struggle. Coleman’s clumsy attempts to coax Ryan Shawcross and Ben Turner into his team showed a lack of trust in his current defensive options, who will have the tough task of keeping the likes of Eden Hazard, Moussa Dembele and Kevin Mirallas quiet.

With such quality throughout the Belgian side, they’ll undoubtedly be one of Wales’ tougher challenges this campaign. The Dragons will need to play like they did against England, but they also must hope that Belgium’s own golden generation don’t dazzle.

Wales v Belgium, 07/09/2012, KO: 19.45, Cardiff City Stadium