Wales head to the World Cup viewed as a one-man team
While Bale is hugely important their biggest strength lies elsewhere
A last 16 place awaits a team packed with experience and resilience
The last time Wales participated in a World Cup, Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister, cinema-goers flocked to see The Bridge On The River Kwai, while a 17-year-old Pele was showcasing his ridiculous talents to millions.
Sadly, this latter landmark is highly pertinent, with the teenage sensation ending Wales’ tournament at the last eight stage.
Ever since, there have been a litany of disappointments and play-off heartbreaks that put England’s unofficial anthem to shame - thirty years of hurt?
Try 64 – and even if in recent times this small, proud nation have enjoyed some unforgettable Euro adventures, their World Cup dream began to mean so much that some stopped daring to dream of it.
That is, of course, until now because this November, Robert Page’s men travel to Qatar having finally qualified via a play-off route full of tense, tight drama and though the World Cup betting has Wales down as 150/1 outsiders to win the whole thing that doesn’t matter a jot because nobody is expecting them to go all the way and furthermore, they won’t.
What does matter is that escapades are had, both on and off the pitch; that memories are made to be forever cherished, and most importantly and vitally, Group B is successfully navigated to ensure all of this happens.
A look at the group’s make-up reveals this to be entirely possible.
The stage is set. Group B is complete. 🏆— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) June 5, 2022
The two teams that will make it out of the group are _____________ and _____________ 🤔 pic.twitter.com/F7FylET2zM
England, naturally, are the strong favourites and should be backed to comfortably reach the last 16 but beyond them a trio of sides will likely be competing for the runner-up spot, all of whom are bunched together in the FIFA world rankings.
Indeed, just nine places separate Wales, USA and Iran and considering the Dragons were placed in Pot 4 their fate could easily have been far more difficult.
Countries who were thankfully avoided include the Netherlands, Germany, Croatia and Uruguay.
That is not to say the respective merits of the USA and Iran should be downplayed. It simply infers they are beatable with the States admittedly sprinkled with genuine quality but also prone to stumbling on the international stage, most notably in recent months to Panama and Canada.
Iran meanwhile, remain something of an unknown quantity but it is safe to state that their qualifying group amounted to a formality and it’s telling too that their best player – Alireza Jahanbakhsh – failed to pull up trees at Brighton.
By comparison, Wales’ biggest talent is Gareth Bale, arguably the greatest ever player to wear the famed red jersey.
Though inevitably the 33-year-old will dominate the conversations surrounding Wales’ hopes as Qatar looms, the first port of call when highlighting their strengths concerns an area of the pitch distinctly lacking in household names. For they are rock-solid at the back.
Or at least they used to be, and presumably can be again. Between October 2020 and October 2021, the Dragons kept eight clean sheets in 15 fixtures, many of which were meaningful contests on route to qualifying for Qatar.
Granted, this impressive parsimony has eroded of late but there are factors behind that, namely a promotion in the Nations League pitting them against elite European fare, while all the time their crucial play-off against Ukraine proved to be a distraction.
And perhaps it is that game that offers up legitimate encouragement because when it really counted, as Wales protected a first-half lead gained from a Bale free-kick, a back-three of Ampadu, Rodon and Davies became a five with the wing-backs tucking in, and a resilient and well-organised carapace was formed around Wayne Hennessey in nets.
It was a welcome reminder that evening of just how well Wales can defend as a unit and regardless of what transpires in the Middle East they will not concede many, nor be on the wrong end of a hiding.
Further forward, theirs is a midfield that heavily relies on the experienced nous of Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey and therein lies an inherent risk given their age and propensity to suffer injuries.
Still, should this be viewed with optimism and a scenario where both are available Wales go into a major tournament with an engine room who can control proceedings against the great and the good, who between them boast 147 caps, not to mention a great many years spent at Arsenal and Liverpool.
On their day and in their pomp, Allen and Ramsey can form one of the most constructive midfield partnerships at the World Cup.
Cristiano Ronaldo named lone striker in UEFA team of Euros. @FAWales Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey in. No Bale. Griezmann and Payet in 4-2-3-1.— Simon Stone (@sistoney67) July 11, 2016
Then there’s Bale, for so long now Wales’ difference-maker and inspiration. Widely criticised for a supposed lack of commitment to Real Madrid, across a nine-year stint in Spain that saw the attacking midfielder accumulate enormous wealth, no such charges can be levelled at him when it comes to representing his country.
Time and again, the five-times Champions League winner has shown up, often only three-quarters fit, and time and again he has pulled off moments of magic and when not, hauled Wales through via his world-class ability and a sheer force of will.
Without Bale, there would have been no Euro adventures in 2016 and 2020. Without Bale, the Welsh team would be watching this year’s World Cup unfold on their massive televisions at home.
Yet there is more to this team than an aging megastar and well put together rearguard. As previously alluded to, their resilience is key, forged from a unity that is typically prevalent in a club side, not an international collective who meet up every few months.
Should they go behind to the USA in their opening game, don’t expect heads to drop but instead sleeves to be rolled up further still. It is an attitude demanded by the ‘Red Wall’, the nation’s passionate, colourful, and extremely boisterous travelling fans.
Lastly, there is a clutch of emerging young talent that not only give hope for the future but who provide broader options to Robert Page, especially when games become stalemated and legs start to tire.
One prospect in particular to look out for is Nottingham Forest’s flying wide-man Brennan Johnson whose 16 goals and nine assists in the Champions last term was an announcement worth noting.
All told, a decent online football bet would be to back Wales to progress out of Group B this winter, whereupon they will very possibly face the Netherlands, or Senegal at a push.
From there, memories will be made, and all manner of escapades will be had.
*Credit for all of the photos in this article belongs to AP Photo*
FIRST PUBLISHED: 21st July 2022