Opportunity knocks for Welsh international Jonathan Williams

Wales commence their World Cup qualifying campaign on Friday with customary low expectations and an abundance of absentees. The bottom seeds in Group A prepare to meet Belgium in Cardiff before a daunting clash with Serbia on Tuesday without Neil Taylor, Andrew Crofts, Joe Ledley, Craig Bellamy, Joel Lynch, David Vaughan, Jack Collison and Wayne Hennessey. These withdrawals will be keenly felt by Chris Coleman, but a potential positive is that the situation may present an opportunity for Crystal Palace’s teen sensation Jonathan Williams.

Williams turns 19 next month and has not yet made 20 appearances for the Palace first team, but Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool are all believed to be monitoring his progress. The 5ft 5in Selhurst Park academy graduate can play across the midfield and signed a new 5-year contract with the club in May. Having made his breakthrough last term, Williams saw his progress halted by a broken leg, sustained while representing the Welsh U-21 side in Armenia last November.

His start to the current campaign has been hampered by a slight calf injury, but Williams has already demonstrated his undoubted talent and he is very highly regarded by the Eagles and his manager Dougie Freedman.

Taylor’s fractured ankle, which will cost him the majority of the season, coupled with Bellamy’s calf tear necessitates a new-look left flank for Wales. Gareth Bale, who has operated on the right in recent matches with mixed results, may switch sides to occupy his favoured position, while Chris Gunter and Adam Matthews are both capable of filling in at left back.

Reading winger Hal Robson-Kanu may fill the void on the right, having started in losses against Costa Rica and Mexico, under Coleman’s stewardship. Williams would be next in line and should Wales struggle to create chances, he may get an opportunity to make an impact from the bench at some stage.

After three consecutive defeats without scoring, fans have voted with their feet, with only 14,000 tickets sold in advance, a figure inflated by a large away contingent of 3,000 Belgian fans. Chris Coleman has to attempt to emulate Gary Speed’s all too brief time in charge, a spell that promised so much and raised expectations to an unrealistic degree. In an evenly matched group that also contains Croatia, Scotland and Macedonia, a good start is essential but Wales have been handed formidable opening opponents.

With a plethora of talented midfielders, a blunt attack and a mediocre defence, Coleman will look to the likes of Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen to rise to the challenge and provide the necessary inspiration. Having recently dropped eight places in the FIFA World Rankings to 45th, positive results against Belgium and Serbia would see them rocket their way up the standings. To do so, Wales will need to emulate their last World Cup qualification victory against opposition of note, a 2-0 win against Belgium in 1993, which featured a first senior goal from a 19-year-old Ryan Giggs.

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