Wales captain Sophie Ingle and manager Gemma Grainger believe their squad can finally qualify for a first major tournament as they begin their qualification bid for the 2023 World Cup.
Gemma Grainger’s Wales side welcome Kazakhstan to Parc y Scarlets in Llanelli on Friday night (7.15pm kick-off), when they begin their new World Cup qualification campaign ahead of the global showpiece event in New Zealand and Australia in 2023.
It is Grainger’s first competitive match in charge after being appointed in March, in the wake of Wales narrowly missing out on a play-off spot for qualifying for the 2022 Euros, and she has almost a fully-fit squad to select from, including stalwarts Jess Fishlock, Angharad James, Tash Harding, Hayley Ladd and Kayleigh Green.
Wales’ new campaign begins with fresh optimism and a bigger focus on attacking threat, with the squad now being based at the Vale Resort like their male counterparts, and the group will be targeting at least a second-placed finish and play-off berth after facing Estonia, France, Greece and Slovenia in their group.
Wales centurion and Chelsea Champions League finalist Ingle said: “The team fully believe [we can qualify].
“We’ve been working so hard on and off the pitch to put things right that didn’t go right last time.
“I think the last two or three campaigns, we’ve had a good foundation of defensive qualities within this team and kept clean sheets at time when teams didn’t think we would. I think we have to create a little bit more go forward.
“We’ve built that, but now we have to build with the ball and going forward, hopefully creating more in the final third.”
Former FA youth coach and England Women assistant coach Grainger is working to a four-year plan based around the World Cup and next Euros qualifiers.
“Every single player and member of staff is working towards that bigger journey,” the Wales boss said.
“We have four years here to really make an impact, and we want to continuously improve both on and off the pitch because we know we have the talent to compete.”
Wales lost out to Northern Ireland for a Euro 2022 play-off spot due to an inferior away goals head-to-head record, despite finishing level on points with them and with a vastly superior goal difference.
“The margins are fine, we’ve seen that in the last European Championship campaign with this group of players,” Grainger added.
“We’ve got some fantastic foundations, we’re building on them and then we’re going to take everything to the next level.
“We’re going to close those margins. That is the four-year plan, to continue to get better as a team.
“We want to qualify, we want to compete for that World Cup. We will learn as much as we can about ourselves in every single game and use that as momentum, we will be taking it a game at a time. That’ll be our mentality throughout.”
Wales will be expected to come away with two victories over 82nd-ranked Kazakhstan on Friday before facing 105th-ranked Estonia away on Tuesday, September 21, but the squad is welcoming that pressure.
Ingle said: “We will fully respect their strengths, but we have to focus on ourselves and we should be expecting to get two wins over the next week.
“It is always tough to play against a low-block and create things when they’re putting 11 bodies behind the ball, but we’ve worked on things like that in training. If that is the case, we can create different overloads and hopefully get a lot of shots on goal.”
Grainger has overseen three friendlies against higher-ranked nations – sixth-ranked Canada, 15th-ranked Denmark and 22nd-ranked Scotland – since taking the role at the FAW to lead Wales, ranked 34th in the world.
“The opposition, they are who they are. Yes, they’re lower-ranked opposition. However, our standards, preparation, focus, mentality is exactly the same as the previous games.
“There’s no easy games but every opposition will pose us a different challenge. It’s our job to find solutions quickly and be relentless in our execution.
“We’re always going to be better at being us, but we’re also going to tactically look at what the opposition are going to give us, and how we can work throughout the game.”
Fans will return for Wales’ game against Kazakhstan, who they last beat 1-0 in a World Cup qualifier in 2017, for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic started.
“Everyone’s just really excited to get the new campaign going at home, which is a massive boost for us, that our staff managed to get a home game the first game of the campaign,” Ingle said.
“We’re expecting a lot of fans which is even better, to have our fans back supporting us, it’s going to be a big boost for us. We’re just delighted to have them back.”
As for Middlesbrough native Grainger, it’s the most exciting part of Friday’s game for her, and she’s ready to belt out the Welsh national anthem after learning it within a few days of her first camp starting.
“I went to the Wales men’s game with Estonia, witnessed 21,000 fans singing the anthem in the stadium, and I can honestly say I’ve never experienced a feeling like that in a stadium,” she said.
“It was special and it excites me, the pride and the passion the fans have in the Red Wall, I’m excited to have them at the game because they’ll play a huge part in our success.
“I feel like I’ve been waiting such a long time for this. It is going to be so nice to have the fans in the stadium but also our friends and family.”
- Wales v Kazakhstan kicks off at 7.15pm on Friday, September 17, at Parc y Scarlets in Llanelli. The match is being broadcast live on BBC Two Wales from 7pm.