Bale and the Dragons relishing big-stage return
Wales are set to play in their second FIFA World Cup
They will face USA, IR Iran and England in Group B
Gareth Bale remains the Dragons' talisman
Even the most upbeat Welsh football fan must have questioned whether their team was cursed throughout significant qualification campaigns after a string of narrow misses and embarrassing lows. But under the leadership of Chris Coleman and now Robert Page, doubt and gloom have made way for assurance and hope.
Page's team performed well from start to finish in Qatar 2022 qualification, breaking their 64-year FIFA World Cup exile with a calm 1-0 play-off victory against Ukraine in Cardiff. This was made possible by their participation in successive UEFA EUROs.
The demons of Scotland in 1977 and 1985, Gheorghe Hagi in 1993, and the low point of Novi Sad ten years ago were all cast out with that Gareth Bale-inspired triumph.
Wales was in a strong position to make Argentina 1978 when the national FA decided to hold a crucial encounter with Scotland at Anfield in an effort to boost ticket sales.
With the support of a sizable Tartan Army attendance, the Scots were given a generous late penalty and ultimately prevailed 2-0 to dash Welsh aspirations.
When Wales led Scotland 1-0 at Cardiff City's Ninian Park eight years later, it looked as though they would get revenge for that loss. Mike England's team, however, was undone by a second questionable penalty decision, and Davie Cooper's goal for the visitors caused Wales to fall from first place in their group and automatic qualification to a spot outside the play-offs.
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Another unfortunate incident occurred when Wales' only chance to qualify for USA 1994 was to defeat Romania at home.
Wales had won all ten of their home games, and manager Terry Yorath had a few elite players to choose from in Neville Southall, Ryan Giggs, and Ian Rush.
A Hagi pot-shot squirmed into the net due to a rare Southall error. However, Wales pulled even thanks to a goal from Dean Saunders and were about to complete the comeback when Gary Speed was brought down in the box.
Left-back Paul Bodin had converted his last three penalties for Wales, but he hit the crossbar with this one. In due course, Romania regained the advantage, and the Welsh World Cup wait went on.
The lowest point of subsequent seasons was a 6-1 thrashing by Serbia in Novi Sad at the start of the qualifying round for Brazil 2014, shortly after Coleman took over as manager from the late Speed.
By utilizing the artistic abilities of Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale, Coleman gradually rebuilt confidence and oversaw the team's progression to the EURO 2016 semifinals. Wales was defeated 1-0 at home by the Republic of Ireland, ending its chances of competing in the World Cup play-offs for Russia 2018.
But there would be no stopping Page’s redoubtable team four years later. Wales took points from Belgium and Czech Republic to secure a play-off berth. A double from Bale eased Wales past Austria in the semi-final, before the same player’s deflected free-kick saw off Ukraine to send Wales to a first World Cup since 1958, when a Pele goal undid them in the quarter-finals.
Page’s approach and tactics
The erudite Page insists his relative success with a Wales team that marries Championship footballers with A-list stars stems from “trying to be a good bloke”. “Do that, be respectful and you will get the best out of the players,” said Page.
Wales awarded Page, a former center-half for Watford and Sheffield United, 41 caps. Following stints as manager of Port Vale and Northampton Town, he was chosen to lead his nation's U-21 team in March 2017.
In addition to managing Wales' U-17 and U-19 teams, Page developed close bonds with players he will rely on in Qatar, including Joe Rodon, the Tottenham defender on loan at Rennes, Joe Morrell, a midfielder for Portsmouth, and Daniel James, a speedster on loan from Fulham.
In November 2020, Page took Ryan Giggs' place, originally on an interim basis, and immediately had an impact. He used wingbacks and three central defenders to defeat the Czech Republic in a critical World Cup qualification match.
Installed for the EURO the previous year, Page showed tactical adaptability by advancing through the group stage with a traditional back four and two holding midfielders, freeing up James, Bale, and Ramsey to support Kieffer Moore. Danish humiliation in the round of 16 was disappointing. However, Page used his man-management abilities to persuade his team to put up a string of impressive World Cup qualification performances.
Wales’ form of late has stuttered and they finished bottom of their four-team Nations League group. Page, however, has instilled in his group of players a knack for delivering their best when the biggest prizes are on the line. Reverting to a three-man backline and ceding possession, Wales used the pace of Bale and James to counter-punch their way to victories over Austria and Cardiff to book their spot in Qatar in November.
Key Player: Gareth Bale
Bale continues to be the talisman for this Wales side even at the age of 34. If you remove him from Page's team, you are left with a competent starting lineup that could compete with most opponents but may be lacking in game-winners.
Bale makes Wales better. He offers both an X-factor and a scare factor. Following a summer transfer from Real Madrid, the player is currently utilized sparingly by Los Angeles FC. His club appearances have long been irregular. But for the attacker, getting sporadic playing time in the United States before Qatar 2022 would be a stroke of genius.
Bale already has more than half an eye on his national team assignment next month while a number of players vying for crucial roles at Qatar 2022 compete in rounds of fiercely contested local and European matches.
Watch Bale's celebrations after his double defeated Andorra at the start of the qualification round for EURO 2016 to understand what playing for Wales means to him. He has scored 39 goals in 108 appearances for his country internationally, and he consistently provides the pivotal contribution.
Additionally, seeing a healthy Bale on the pitch must give his 10 teammates a great deal of confidence. Wales would have a good chance of making it out of Group B if Page can keep Bale healthy and on the field. Page would undoubtedly prefer to wrap Bale in cotton wool right now.
One to watch: Brennan Johnson
Johnson's commitment to the City Ground for the next four years may be the biggest coup of all the signings Nottingham Forest made for their return to the Premier League.
The 21-year-old flyer, who won Championship Player of the Season honors last season, capped a fantastic personal campaign by helping Wales defeat Ukraine and go to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Johnson is a good match for Page, who prefers quick-footed wide players to balance out the size and strength of Moore's center forward Moore.
Johnson was born into a sporty family; his father, David, was an excellent forward for Forest and Ipswich Town. He has been a member of his club since he was eight years old and has a sharp football mind.
He is adaptable enough to have played as Wales' primary striker in a recent match in the Netherlands, netting his second goal in a 3-2 loss while doing so. Three days earlier, shortly after stepping in for Bale in a Nations League 1-1 with Belgium, Johnson scored his first goal for Wales.
Johnson, who was born in Nottingham, played age-group soccer for England before switching to Wales four years ago. He is eligible since his grandparents are from Powys, and he has accelerated to 15 caps, starting his last three games.
Johnson, who has blistering pace and prefers to play on the right, has been praised by Page as a "great talent" who has the "potential and ability" to play for a "top six" Premier League club.
Forest staved off that threat this summer. Now England, USA and Iran will get to see what the fuss is about.
Wales’ World Cup history
Wales will compete in a World Cup for only the second time in Qatar. They drew all three group matches in Sweden in 1958 before beating Hungary, who also finished on three points, in a one-off shootout for a last-eight spot. Pele scored the only goal of a Gothenburg quarter-final for eventual winners Brazil.
Wales came close to qualifying for the tournament at least four times in the intervening years, but had to wait until 2022 to get over the line, defeating Ukraine in Cardiff to book a place in Qatar.
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