The surprise package of the 2016 European Championship tournament, Wales, were expected to qualify from their group having been drawn against teams that favoured Chris Coleman’s side, but going into their final group games, four points behind Serbia and outside the playoff places, has left Wales sweating on a place in Russia.
Adding to their woes is the calf injury to their talisman Gareth Bale, who finds himself out for their matches with Georgia and the Republic of Ireland, putting in jeopardy their hopes of squeezing into the World Cup playoffs at the very least.
Losing Bale for the Georgia game is not catastrophic, but it hurts their chances and anything other than a win will mean that they are likely to miss out on a place in Russia. With only eight group runners-up progressing to the play-offs, Wales sit in ninth place and have all the work to do.
So the question is, can Wales still qualify without Bale or do they face an uphill task to make it to Russia 2018?
What is firmly in Wales’ favour is that they face a Georgia side they should expect to beat and despite only earning a draw in the last match between the pair, Wales have the quality in their side without Bale to head to Tbilisi and come away with the points they need.
Coleman will need to draw on his side’s experience at this level to ensure that they head into their final group game with the Republic of Ireland on Monday with their fate in their own hands and a professional performance against Georgia could ensure that their confidence is sky high when they return in front of their home fans for a decider with Martin O’Neill’s side.
The pressure to create chances now falls on Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey and Derby County striker Tom Lawrence. In Ramsey they have a respected figure that puts miles in on the pitch but there are question marks around whether he can provide the spark in Bale’s absence.
Having made the move to the Rams this summer, Lawrence has been a consistent force in a Derby side that have yet to hit their stride and with a lack of experience at the top level, it remains to be seen if he has the quality to provide an added dimension.
Goals have been scarce in qualifying at the best of times and with Ramsey’s 13 goals, the highest tally in the squad without Bale, he will be the player that the rest follow. Against a tough, physical, Georgia side any chances that present themselves must be taken.
Too many draws in this qualifying campaign sees Wales in danger of missing the 2018 World Cup. They could not finish sides off or produce that extra quality needed at International level and they need to find someone to step up in Bale’s absence.
The next Bale?
One wildcard in all of this is Liverpool’s 17-year-old forward Ben Woodburn, who could be the X-factor Wales needs to progress to the playoffs. An exciting prospect with genuine star quality and international goals to his name, Woodburn could be a prolific striker.
Clearly, the pressure is off Woodburn at such a young age and he won’t be expected to be the saviour of Wales’ qualifying hopes, but having worked his way into the squad on merit it would be foolish for Coleman to not throw him in for these next two games, he has nothing to lose after a poor campaign that has surprised many after their performance at Euro 2016.
Defensive solidity gives them a chance
Where the experience counts is their back five who have been a mainstay of Wales’ rise for several years. In goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, they have a genuine shot-stopper that has years of Premier League experience under his belt and will have the confidence of those in front of him to be solid at the back.
For the best part of a decade Wales have been a team to not concede many goals and though there is no star quality at the back, they have solid international standard players with plenty of experience to call on and who will be reliable.
Recent momentum with seven points from a possible nine has given Wales a chance of making it to the playoffs at the very least and whilst they know anything less than two wins will probably not be enough, it is likely that two wins will ensure they have an opportunity in a two-legged tie to make their first World Cup since 1958.
Should they get the win against Georgia, all eyes will point to Monday’s tie with potential rivals for a playoff place, the Republic of Ireland. This presents itself as a much tougher ask but on home turf and with a hopeful three straight wins under their belt, Group D has the potential to end on a thrilling high for Wales.
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