Wales’ World Cup hopes will be either enhanced or extinguished in what looks set to be a massive week for Welsh football.
The national side will face Austria on Thursday in a play-off semi-final, aiming to take a big step towards ending a painful 64-year history of “so near and yet so far” disappointments.
We have been fortunate enough to live through Welsh football’s golden age in recent years. Qualification for the Euros in 2016 was followed up with that unforgettable run to the semi-finals, a once-in-a-lifetime event which anybody who travelled to France will forever remember as the greatest summer of their lives. You can read a magical account of that tournament here.
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Then the men in red qualified for Euro 2020 and once again made the knock-out stages. We’ve been treated to some of the best performance in our country’s history and we’ve had the privilege of watching many of our greatest talents gel to create something truly beautiful which will leave an incredible legacy both on and off the pitch.
But one thing has remained elusive throughout these years of success: a qualification for the most prestigious competition of them all. Only a handful of Welshmen have ever played at a World Cup and fewer still are still alive to reminisce about it.
Since then, Wales has produced amazing players like Ian Rush, Ryan Giggs, Mark Hughes, Neville Southall and John Toshack but none had the chance to show off their skills on the world’s biggest stage. If the likes of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey want to avoid the same fate, Wales have to beat Austria on Thursday.
Only a handful of the golden generation remain from Euro 2016 but for most of them, including the likes of Bale and Ramsey, this is could be their last chance to make it to a World Cup, or at the very least their last chance to have a meaningful impact at one.
If they want to make it to Qatar, they will have to overcome what feels like a curse, which has stood in Wales’s way since 1958.
Joe Jordan’s handball, Paul Bodin’s penalty miss, Joe Allen’s concussion against Ireland, the list goes on. All key moments in decisive World Cup qualifiers which led to lasting heartbreak and resentment among Welsh fans. Wales have always been the kid in the class who never gets invited to the big party.
If they are to put this curse to bed, they need to overcome an Austria team which underperformed in qualifying but have no shortage of quality. Manager Franco Foda came under pressure during the qualifiers after disappointing results including their heaviest home defeat in more than a decade against Denmark, two losses to Scotland and a 5-2 hammering away in Israel.
However recent performances have seen an improvement and there is a feeling the Austrians are now in a better frame of mind to tackle this momentous fixture. When the draw was made there was definitely a feeling that Wales had struck gold. Not only did they avoid the likes of Italy and Portugal in their bracket, they also secured a home semi-final and a potential home final, should they get there.
There’s no point denying it, when we look at some of the other teams in the draw, it’s clear we got lucky and now have a realistic chance of finally making it to a World Cup. Having said that, one look at Austria’s squad and it’s clear that Wales face a stern challenge here.
Half their squad plays regularly for clubs challenging seriously for Champions League spots in their respective leagues. Wales on the other hand have just one player who fits this description in Tottenham’s Ben Davies. Austria’s squad is experienced, with an average age of 28 but also has emerging stars who are enjoying stellar campaigns for their clubs, including Christoph Baumgartner who’s been scoring from midfield for Hoffenheim and 20-year-old RB Salzburg midfield sensation Nicolas Seiwald.
They also have seasoned campaigners whose names are well-known across Europe. These include the brilliant Marcel Sabitzer, who has struggled at times this season to establish himself in the star-studded Bayern Munich starting XI, but remains an outstanding attacking force, capable of scoring and setting up goals against the very best.
Former Stoke striker Marko Arnautovic has always fluctuated between brilliant and bewildering but at his best, he is a magnificent player. Now nearing his 33rd birthday, he’s still finding the back of the net in Serie A for Bologna and has a one in three goal-scoring ratio for his country, which is certainly impressive.
But without a doubt, the biggest name in Austria’s squad is David Alaba. Possibly the best centre-back in the world on current form, the versatile 29-year-old has also been used as a left-back and central midfielder for his country.
Wherever he plays, he oozes class. His positional sense is on a different level, he reads the game exceptionally and rarely looks flustered. His athleticism, coupled with his excellent range of passing make him a superstar. He’s also perfectly capable of scoring the odd goal every now and then.
Austria were disappointing in qualifying but there is so much quality in this side that Wales will need to be at their very best to beat them. The Austrians gave us a hint of what to expect at last summer’s Euros. Despite a rather timid display on the whole in the group stages, they raised their game for the last-16 clash against eventual winners Italy and gave the Azzurri an almighty scare.
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This is a team which has top class performances in its locker and that should give Welsh fans a sobering reminder of the challenge which faces their country. Only five of Wales’s 23-man squad have played regular top-flight football this season and one of those is playing in the Belgian league. The likes of Bale and Ramsey have played very little club football recently and the majority of the squad is sourced from the Championship. These include fantastic youngsters like Neco Williams and Brennan Johnson but many are still extremely inexperienced.
And while Wales did not face the kind of criticism aimed at Austria during qualifying, there were some worryingly unconvincing performances en route to their second-place finish, as well as some genuinely encouraging ones. Wales are in for a seriously tough night on Thursday but reaching a World Cup never comes easy and while the opposition will be formidable, Wales have a number of factors in their favour.
Rob Page has divided opinion at times during his time in charge but he’s only lost four of his 19 matches as Wales manager, all against teams in the top 10 of the FIFA rankings. He is yet to lose on home soil and Wales haven’t lost in Cardiff since 2018. The men in red have lost just two of their last 24 competitive home games, a run stretching back to 2014.
Securing home advantage in the draw was crucial and massively boosted our chances of qualification. Cardiff has become a fortress for Wales and the atmosphere created by the crowd contributes a great deal to that. There is no doubt at all that the Red Wall will turn up and give it their very best. The question now is whether Wales’s players can rise to the occasion and take a massive step towards realising their World Cup dreams.