Defensive blueprint could see Wales emulate successes of Greece and Italy
Wales are a breath away from securing qualification to Euro 2016 and a win away against Bosnia & Herzegovina will guarantee this.
Much of the hype of their qualifiers has been around the effect that the world’s most expensive player, Gareth Bale, has had. With six goals during their campaign, he has been their talisman. Like what Wayne Rooney is to England, Cristiano Ronaldo to Portugal and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Sweden.
This is a side, though, that is on the upwards trajectory in international football. While in the past, they had Ryan Giggs and John Hartson, even Craig Bellamy, Rob Earnshaw and Simon Davies could be argued at some level to have been pivotal players, however they could never seem to get it right.
Particularly lacking were they in defence, with teams often exposing their frailties. In Lewin Nyatanga and David Gabbidon, they had centre backs who were average at best, but certainly not top international class.
However, now, in Ashley Williams, they have an exceptional defender who would not look out of place playing in the Champions League every week. Rearguard partner James Collins is an experienced campaigner, who has come up against quality year-in year-out in the Premier League, plying his trade for West Ham United.
However, Spurs’ promising left back Ben Davies has been deployed in the middle in recent matches, a move that looks to have been a masterstroke. The 22-year-old’s pace and tenacity in the tackle, perfectly complementing William’s aerial dominance and sense of positioning.
With the technically astute Neil Taylor deployed at left back and 26-year-old Chris Gunter on the other side, Wales have a great symbiosis in defence that has proved to be more than capable. While not world class, Wayne Hennessey has shown that he is a perfectly able goalkeeper and perhaps impressive is the on-field relationship he has with his defenders.
Their much-changed barricade is reinforced with tougher resistance, though seems to embody the collective resilience that now runs through the squad. Aaron Ramsey is another world class player, while fellow midfielders Joe Ledley and Joe Allen are technically polished on the ball.
There is much to pleased about for fans, considering where they were. Almost nine years ago to the day, Wales lost 5-1 at home to Slovakia in a Euro 2008 qualifier, with a 17-year-old Bale dispatching the only goal, a well struck free-kick, as he announced himself to the world in a left back berth.
Evidence of a more solid defensive approach is obvious. Wales currently top Group B one point ahead of Belgium with five wins and three draws. Although they have scored the second least amount of goals (nine), they have conceded the least (two), highlighting their defensive improvement.
While a lack of goals might be an area of concern for some supporters, a well organised Italy side won the World Cup in 2006 as they conceded two goals in the entire competition. Greece, meanwhile, shocked Europe two years earlier, winning Euro 2004 with a well-drilled side and disciplined tactics.
Consecutive 1-0 victories in the knockout stages, the first against France and the second after extra time against Czech Republic, before upsetting hosts Portugal in the final with a 1-0 win, saw them enter the history books.
Wales shouldn’t worry about being drawn in a hard group; they seem to have a collective team spirit that can steer them to glory. Further, there is a suggestion that the sudden, heartbreaking death of former manager Gary Speed has had an effect on the squad, so motivating, that any victory, or successful tournament would be dedicated to him.
Topping Group B would be seen as a considerable landmark, and one that could possibly have seemed beyond their grasp at the start of the qualifying campaign, though two more wins from their remaining two matches will guarantee this; an achievement in itself that deserves to be celebrated. It begins as Wales take on Bosnia & Herzegovina, which Chris Coleman’s side are 10/3 with Coral to win and Bale given a 6/4 anytime scorer price.