Embed from Getty ImagesFootball reporter Mark Pitman has the hosts’ view ahead of the do-or-die Wales versus Ireland World Cup showdown in Cardiff. He answers our questions. Wales are hitting a run of form while Ireland have thrown away a promising position. If it comes down to the game in Cardiff, how confident are the home fans?
Very confident, although that could change following events in Georgia on Friday, as we have a number of players one yellow card away from missing the match, as well as Gareth Bale out through injury. It’s no coincidence that Wales have hit form with our key players available, as injuries and suspensions have hit the team hard in the current campaign. We need all our best players available, all of the time, and it’s only in the last couple of games we’ve had that particular luxury. However, Gareth Bale’s absence can also have a psychological effect on the rest of the side. We know we can beat anyone on our day, we’ve proved it time and time again, and playing in Cardiff is a huge factor to consider as there will be an incredible atmosphere there on Monday. We also have the emergence of Ben Woodburn to add some X-factor to the side, and don’t be surprised if David Brooks makes a similar impression if he gets his chance.
The elephant in the room is that Ireland or Wales could finish second and not reach the play offs. Considering Wales’ performance at Euro 2016, what would failure to qualify for the World Cup mean in assessing Chris Coleman?
You will struggle to find any Welsh fan that isn’t behind Chris Coleman. Some might say we overachieved in reaching the semi-finals of EURO 2016, some might say we overachieved by qualifying, but that isn’t the view of those that have seen this team develop and evolve. Coleman has kept the achievements in perspective, qualifying once doesn’t mean it will happen every time, and the manager has stated recently that qualifying for two out of every three tournaments is a realistic aim for a country of our size with the player pool we have available. Coleman has done an incredible job, and he must take enormous credit for the evolution of this team, and himself, since taking over in such difficult circumstances after the passing of Gary Speed.
The game in Dublin was regarded as a turgid affair. Irish fans often point to it as proof that we are a limited side but what is the view in Wales?
It was always likely to be a bit of an ugly affair. Wales were quite happy to take a point and a clean sheet away from home, and it probably showed in the approach, especially after Neil Taylor’s red card. It was pretty similar to the match between Wales and Northern Ireland at EURO 2016, a typical British battle, and not one for the purists. Potentially there could be a lot at stake on Monday, and while the game will be hyped up, it is unlikely to be a classic. Embed from Getty Images
What are the thoughts about Ben Woodburn? The feeling in Ireland is that Martin O’Neill is too conservative to risk a teenager but it looks to be paying off for Coleman.
It depends what you consider to be a risk. Players like Woodburn, Ethan Ampadu and now David Brooks haven’t been randomly selected, Coleman and his backroom staff have been watching an monitoring these players for years. The pathway system in Wales ensures they have the Welsh way of playing drilled into them and they know what is expected of them in the position they are selected for. Coleman is adamant that he is under no pressure to cap players, and that any selection is on merit, and for the reason that he believes they can do the job required. You never know for sure how a player like Woodburn will react when he does get his chance, but Coleman believes in players like Woodburn for a reason. So, is O’Neill too conservative? Or is it due to the fact that Ireland don’t have the same level of talent coming through? Make no mistake, players like Woodburn, Ampadu and Brooks are quites exceptional for their age.
What’s the assessment of Wales campaign overall?
Frustrating, but only due to the number of injuries and suspensions to key players that have restricted us, and it’s happened again now with Gareth Bale. During the EURO 2016 qualifying campaign, pretty much every player was available, all of the time, and naturally it made a huge difference. There were games that were turned by moments of brilliance from Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, and they were the difference between drawing and winning. Now that we have been without players like Ramsey, Bale, Joe Allen for certain games, leads have been lost and points have been dropped. The campaign has been a firm reminder that we are a small nation.
Is there still a feel good factor after the Euros?
Of course, it was incredible and set a high standard that we all want to repeat. We are now selling out home games, which hasn’t been done for a long time, and everyone wants to be a part of it. The fans have an appreciation about why things haven’t quite gone to plan this time, but we are still in contention, and given the collective circumstances of the campaign we would have taken that at the start.
What’s the view of this Irish team who’ve failed to beat any of their major rivals at home?
Ireland had a great start but I personally thought they were punching above their weight and would fall down towards the end of the campaign. I based that on the lack of top quality players. As I said earlier, it was Bale and Ramsey that made the difference in key games during the last campaign, and Ireland just don’t have that sort of player. It can be psychological towards the end of a campaign too, and players like Bale and Ramsey have that big game mentality from playing regularly at the very top level both domestically and in Europe. It can have a huge impact on the team, the group, both on and off the field.
I think Ireland have gone and I can’t see anything other than a convincing win for Wales. I’ll be slightly optimistic and say a 4-0 home win!
Mark Pitman is a freelance football reporter and contributes to a number of publications including the official websites of UEFA and the Football Association of Wales. Visit www.markpitman1.com and follow @markpitman1 and @UEFAcomMPitman for more.