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An explanation for why Wales have gone from Euro 2016 semi-finalists to World Cup qualification strugglers

March 25, 2017 3:38 PM
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It's a little more than eight months ago that the sun shone brightly in Lyon with Wales just 90 minutes away from the final of Euro 2016.

But the heady days of summer have gone now – and the hopes of a Red Wall reunion in Russia are looking a little slimmer following Friday night's draw in Dublin.

It was never truly a must-win in terms of outright qualification, but with Ireland – and now next opponents Serbia – still four points clear going into the second-half of the campaign, the stalemate means Chris Coleman's Euro heroes are going to have to pull something out of the bag if they are to snatch the one guaranteed qualifying place on offer.

So how have Wales ended up in this position? Why hasn't it quite clicked this time around? And what has to happen to put it right?

First thing's first, Wales have not suddenly become a poor team. The strengths that brought a first major finals in more than half a century remain their strengths, the quality proven and the character one of a humble hardness that made Euro 2016 what it was.

Not a lot has changed in that respect. What has changed more than anything is the expectation. Fair or not, there is an expectation that Wales should qualify for the World Cup as opposed to an ambition as it was last time.

Indeed, had the last campaign not happened, being 'only' four points adrift of top going into the second-half would be seen as a success. That is gone now because of what the team have shown they are capable of. Dealing with the pressures – such as the one building up Friday's clash into a 'must win' affair regardless of the accuracy of that – is part and parcel of being at the top.

Wales have struggled with that a little, not rising above the different kind of pressure that came with achieving something for the first time.

Wales don't deal with being favourites very well, often a trait shared beyond football. It's one thing overcoming that against minnows, but another against capable teams who suddenly view you as a scalp. Wales knew this was coming but that doesn't make it any easier to overcome in games where – as an injury-hit Ireland did on Friday – opponents are happy to sit deep and defend, even at home. A point is not bad against top seeds and European Championship semi-finalists.

It doesn't suit Wales' game of running into space and fast breaks when teams line up behind the ball, Dublin often seeing every green shirt in their own half. It requires patience and a faith that a chance will come, and it might well have come in Ireland before Neil Taylor's red. But it also requires remaining solid and focused to stop giving hope to the underdog, something Wales have not done in games so far having given away a lead three times from five fixtures.

Wales have better and more trusted options in their squad than they have for many a year, but there are certain players who are not easily replaced. Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen are two such players, their attributes able to make vital differences at vital times.

Ramsey, the team's best creative playmaker, missed the first three matches through injury. Allen with his demand for the ball and dictation of pay and tempo was sorely missed in that regretful draw with Georgia as they lost their direction. Now they will have to be without Gareth Bale in Serbia.

It had been noted before this game, but Friday night in Dublin underlined the fact that too many good players are not in good form. More than that, too many are not playing enough – leading to what Coleman admitted was a rustiness with the ball.

They lack quality, accuracy and precision at key times. Joe Ledley was one such player, guilty with some crosses and with his general sharpness, but all understandable when you consider he has not played a minute in seven weeks.

Ramsey has struggled with form and fitness at Arsenal, Hal Robson-Kanu has started two games all year, Taylor had struggled at Swansea and – perhaps crucially when Wales desperately looked for a bit of magic on Friday – Bale's touch sometimes betrayed the fact he has only recently come back from ankle surgery. Wales will always need their best to be at their best. Right now they're not.

Say what you want, there is no doubt the Euros took their toll on the squad, physically and mentally. Players struggled initially to find new motivation after returning from France – and once they got going again, perhaps found the difficulty of producing best levels after putting so much into the summer tournament.

This was a new experience for every single member of the squad and some have coped better than others. After the breeze past Moldova, it was evident in that draw with Georgia where it is the first time you could accuse this side of complacency or lacking the levels needed whoever the opponents are in international football. Those games felt a little too close to the Euros and subsequently momentum was lost.

The very nature of the qualifying format has proven a problem for Wales. Euro 2016 had a safety net of the second place being automatic and third place offering a play-off. It stopped any of that 'must-win' pressure coming into play, the pressure more about seizing a moment. Not here, not when only eight of the nine second-placed teams will go into the play-offs.

Furthermore, Wales' debut as top seeds did them no favours. Drawing a big gun second seed might have worked better than a tight draw of four genuine rivals for one position. Serbia were always better than third seeds and have been climbing back, Ireland were fourth seeds yet made it to the knock out stages of the Euros, and Austria had been very impressive going into the campaign.

Throw in Georgia being far better than a sixth seed and think that they would have been replaced by a San Marino or Gibraltar and you can see why this group is like no other.

If Wales don't make it to Russia, it won't be because of not holding on in Austria or even the draw in Dublin. It'll be because Wales dropped points at home to the group's lowest seeds.

In context, no-one should really class the draw in Vienna as a poor result, most would accept that a battling draw in Dublin was decent enough and they could consider themselves unlucky in the home draw to Serbia – but that is in isolation of those results alone.

In the context of the campaign, every dropped point from here on in will be felt even more – even in Belgrade in June. And it could well be all because of Georgia.

No-one should ever forget how small breaks that go your way can make the difference between success and failure. Had Gareth Bale not been allowed to re-take a free-kick in the final ten minutes in Andorra at the start of the last campaign, you would very much doubt Wales would have made it to France.

At 1-0 against Serbia in the final few minutes, a good performance would have been topped by a second goal as Bale broke through. His shot hit the wrong side of the post and minutes later Serbia drew level. On such moments campaigns can be made. The hope will be that Welsh fans aren't moaning about that one in years to come as they wonder 'what might have been'.

Although they stunned a new breed of fan, Wales have not and will not always be as brilliant as they were against Russia or Belgium. The last campaign wasn't full of free-flowing football. Andorra was a poor performance, they scrapped for their lives in early games, defended resolutely away to Belgium.

It was the Israel game away from home where they really turned it on. Qualifying teams don't always have to be superb yet you can feel some negativity creeping in as criticism of performances comes. It is a process of highs and lows.

It is far from over, even if it will be difficult. A point in Serbia would not be the end of the road either, but it would mean Wales having to back themselves to win their last four games. That's not unrealistic given two are at home – where Wales have not lost a qualifier in four years – albeit against Austria and Ireland.

The group's two lowest seeds are also in that run, although Wales would have to firmly put aside the issues that come with such awkward away days in Georgia and Moldova.

Georgia will take points off someone, almost shocking Serbia on Friday, while you cannot imagine an average Ireland not also dropping points along the way.

Four points adrift but with the two teams above them to play? The past has seen Wales rely on the most unlikely of scenarios just to give themselves some hope, but they are not there yet. If they can overcome the issues that have stung since the summer, the Red Wall might yet go to Russia.

Also read: Peru's Guerrero banned for a year, will miss World Cup

Source: walesonline.co.uk

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