World Cup Qualifiers – Wales and Northern Ireland in action
Faint hopes of 2014 World Cup qualification for Wales and Northern Ireland faded away to nothing some time ago, but there is still pride and important rankings points to play for tomorrow night as well as a chance for some of the next generation of players to shine.
Wales are 7/5 favourites with Coral to beat Macedonia in Cardiff and they also have the incentive of moving off the bottom of Group A and above both their opponents and Scotland into fourth place if they can manage it.
These are frustrating times for Wales boss Chris Coleman. There’s already talk of him being replaced after this disappointing campaign has been completed and yet he knows that in the world class Gareth Bale and arguably the best player in the Premier League right now, Aaron Ramsey, he has the basis of the best national side since Mark Hughes and Ryan Giggs were in their prime.
Bale will once again be absent tomorrow and in fact Coleman will be without ten of the original 23 he picked for the game, including captain Ashley Williams, currently nursing an ankle injury.
Into the squad come two untried youngsters – 20-year-old Southampton midfielder, Lloyd Isgrove, and 16-year-old Liverpool winger, Harry Wilson – and Coleman also welcomes James Collins back into the fold after a fall-out with the centre back.
With the effervescent Craig Bellamy (11/2 to score first or last, 6/4 at any time) as eager as ever to make an impact as his international career draws to a close and Ramsey (6/1 and 7/4) in such scintillating form for Arsenal, Wales still look a decent bet to beat Macedonia, despite so many enforced changes.
But Macedonia beat them 2-1 in Skopje last month and this may well be another tight scrap. 2-1 for Wales this time (9/1) looks a fair shout.
Northern Ireland make the long journey to Azerbaijan in another match between the Qualifiers also-rans, this time in Group F.
Unlike Coleman, Michael O’Neill has no new serious injury concerns (Niall McGinn is a slight doubt), but his players are suffering from mental wounds following the 3-2 defeat to traditional European whipping-boys, Luxembourg, that won’t stand them in good stead against an Azerbaijan side determined to get off the bottom of the table.
Azerbaijan have still to win a Group match, but have drawn five of their eight games, including in Belfast last November (when the home side needed a David Healy equaliser in the sixth minute of injury time to salvage a point) and may again prove a tough nut to crack. Coral go 5/4 Azerbaijan and 11/5 Northern Ireland, but another draw (11/5) could be the smart call.