There seems to be an almost-universal agreement that Wales’ Gareth Bale is going to be the deciding factor in Friday’s “Battle of Britain”, but is it right to pin an entire country’s hopes on one in-form midfielder?
The situation’s instantly recognisable in both Argentina and Portugal, albeit with completely different circumstances. There was a time where Lionel Messi just couldn’t match his form for Barcelona with his duties for his national side, yet he now plays a vital role in the whole operation that sees Argentina top of the CONMEBOL qualifiers for the World Cup. Portugal, on the other hand, seemed at a loss at Euro 2012 when Cristiano Ronaldo wasn’t firing on all cylinders and it wasn’t until he burst into life that the team proved a real challenge for champions Spain in the semi-finals.
Bale may never have to worry about that. Not only is he not at their level (yet?), Wales haven’t got a hope in Hell to ever make it to a Euros or World Cup in his lifetime. Aside from his obvious star power – one he’s only rediscovered fairly recently – Wales are at a loss when it comes to scoring goals and defending against average teams. Their crushing 6-1 defeat at the hands of Serbia showed they just aren’t able to compete on the world stage.
That doesn’t matter a whole lot this weekend, however, as Wales take on a side struggling even more than they are. Scotland have picked up just two points from four games and don’t have the luxury of being able to taunt Wales with a European-class player. The honeymoon period following Gordon Strachan’s appointment is already over and the miserable truth surfaces – qualification for yet another major tournament is out of reach.
With Belgium and Croatia out in front with 10 points, both British sides will know they have little chance of causing a major upset in terms of qualification. Even third place, currently occupied by the Serbians, sounds a tall order considering recent form. Wales have gained points only from their encounter with Scotland in Cardiff, sandwiched between beatings from Belgium, Serbia and Croatia. All this goes out of the window on Friday, but it’s not only pride that’s on the line. Seeding for Euro 2016 in France, as well as confidence for the young hopefuls.
Life for Welsh football is actually pretty rosy. Swansea completed another brilliant season when they won the Capital One Cup, thrashing Bradford City 5-0 and they’re well on course for another top half finish in the Premier League. One of their defenders, Ashley Williams, is an oft-reliable stalwart of the team and, with some nurturing, could bolster Wales’ chances of a clean sheet in future campaigns. Further down, Cardiff may have had their traditional wobble in recent weeks but they’re still top of the Championship and are looking fairly nailed-on to join their neighbours in the top English division.
It’s club football that’s also more important for Gareth Bale. As Tottenham Hotspur challenge for a top-four finish for entry into the Champions League, as well as marching through the Europa League, the 23 year-old knows that national success is the only likely way he’s going to get his hands on some silverware. Staying injury-free is the best way to achieve these goals and, against a fired-up Scotland, Wales will want to protect their prize asset. Should Scotland put all their eggs in one basket, they could leave holes open elsewhere on the pitch where Wales could counter with other top performers. However, with the likes of Joe Allen and Steve Morison injured, plus Aaron Ramsey looking unlikely to return to the form he promised before “that” tackle three years ago, you’re left wondering where that attacking threat will come from.
Nevertheless, it’s a must-win game for Wales. Or perhaps a draw will do. Losing to their British rivals will open up probing questions for manager Chris Coleman, who has only won two of the seven games he’s presided over. He may well cast envious eyes over counterpart Strachan, who’s relatively assured he won’t be going anywhere for the rest for the qualifying competition, but it would be unwise to push Coleman overboard too soon. It’s not entirely his fault that he can’t get a whole lot out of a limited talent pool and it will be extremely tempting to allow Bale a free role, hoping he’ll get lucky. He has scored four of Wales’ last five goals after all and his club form suggests he might terrorise Hampden Park.
With or without Gareth Bale, Wales versus Scotland is a huge game, no matter what “leading experts” may say. So the result means little to either side’s qualification hopes? Try telling that to the fervently patriotic supporters of both countries who will be baying for each other’s blood come Friday. In any case, it’s a markedly “bigger” game than England v San Marino…