Wales began this qualifying campaign with their morale and prospects at an all time low. But despite failing to qualify once more, they end it in rude health under new management with a talented young squad reinvigorated. Gary Speed was the natural heir to the throne as John Toshack fell on his sword after witnessing Wales lose their opening qualifier in Montenegro. Speed was appointed just before Christmas and made an inauspicious start. Defeats against the Republic of Ireland, England and Scotland were recorded before beating Northern Ireland, with Speed later revealing that: “We
A further defeat – a 2-1 friendly loss at the hands of Australia – now appears to be a turning point of sorts, with a poor first half preceding an improved second half display. Wales managed to build upon that performance with a surprise win over Montenegro and an honourable defeat against England. Having dropped to a record low FIFA ranking, Wales have crept back in to the top 100 and the resulting injection of confidence and belief is beginning to boost Gary Speed’s young squad.
Friday’s 2-0 win over Switzerland was both their best result and performance thus far. Unfortunately for them though, their upturn in fortunes did not come quick enough to avoid being grouped amongst the bottom seeds in the draw for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. Wales were paired with Croatia, Serbia, Belgium, Scotland and Macedonia (who incidentally are now overseen by former Wales manager John Toshack). It should prove to be a competitive group, with every nation fancying their chances.
In terms of positives, Speed will be enthused by how his players have adopted his methods and embraced a new system, from a defensively minded 5-3-2 to a more modern and positive 4-2-3-1. After the antiquated methods of Toshack, they also appear to be enjoying international football again, with less withdrawals and players willing to make themselves available for selection again.
In terms of personnel, the return from long-term injury for Jack Collison provided an injection of quality. The emergence of Swansea City’s Neil Taylor at left-back and Cardiff City’s Darcy Blake at centre-back has added extra strength in depth, with both firmly establishing themselves as genuine contenders for a starting place. Taylor is now playing regularly in the Premier League and is building a solid partnership with both Gareth Bale and Craig Bellamy, who regularly switch flanks during games. Blake started the 2-1 friendly defeat against Australia, scoring the Welsh consolation goal, and kept his place in the side despite the return of James Collins, continuing to impress in the narrow loss at Wembley last month.
Certain weaknesses remain and are unlikely to be rectified any time soon. Although blessed with an abundance of talented central midfielders, Wales are short of wingers and the standard of the available strikers is relatively mediocre. Craig Bellamy is likely to used sparingly at Liverpool, which may prolong his international career, but the end is nigh and he will be sorely missed. Wales round up their campaign in Bulgaria on Tuesday with an outside chance of finishing third -an unexpected bonus as they recover their competitive edge after a barren few years.
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