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.
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