Later today, Wales will start their World Cup qualification campaign. For the Welsh faithful, it’ll be a strange feeling. No longer is history holding them back, no longer are they nearly men.
Can the most successful Wales team in over half a century qualify for a World Cup?
By the time the 2018 World Cup rolls along, it will be 60 years since Wales competed in their last one.
In 1958, a team that featured the likes of John Charles and Ivor Allchurch played in the World Cup in Sweden. The Dragons did themselves proud, going out in the quarter finals to eventual winners Brazil. The Brazilian goal scorer? Pele.
Nobody thought it would be 58 years before Wales qualified for their next major international tournament.
Following World Cup Qualifying campaigns after have all ended in failure. Wales missed out on the 1982 World Cup in Spain on goal difference.
The same thing happened in qualifying four years later, the Dragons beat group winners Spain 3-0, but lost to bottom side Iceland in Reykjavik.
Even the great Welsh team of the 1990s, which included Ryan Giggs, Ian Rush and Gary Speed couldn’t do the business.
Player for player, the current crop of Welshmen are by no means the strongest in history. However, as a collective, this is arguably the greatest team Wales’ has ever had, certainly in recent history at least.
The latest World Cup qualifying campaign was one to forget, on the other hand, the Euro 2016 qualifiers couldn’t have been more different.
Spurred on by a packed crowd, Wales went undefeated at the Cardiff City stadium, beating Belgium on the way.
Holding the World Cup Qualifier home games at the Cardiff City Stadium rather than the Principality Stadium, which is notorious for its bad acoustics, was a no-brainer.
Chris Coleman outlined the advantage his side had when playing at the Cardiff City’s home before Wales’ homecoming parade:
We get 30,000 sell-outs where the atmosphere is electric. It’s where in the last campaign a feeling was generated by our supporters that had a huge impact on the team. We shouldn’t forget that.
Currently, there is a sense of expectation about this Welsh side, UEFA recognises that too. When the World Cup qualifying draw was made, Wales joined Germany, England and Spain as top group seeds.
It’s no surprise after the men in red reached the Euro 2016 semi-final. Against Belgium, Wales were outstanding, fully deserving of their 3-1 victory.
Perhaps if Ramsey hadn’t been banned, the semi-final against Portugal would’ve been more competitive.
Along with Iceland, Wales’ heroics in France was the story of the summer. The whole of Europe knows what Gareth Bale and co. are about.
Throughout qualifying, Chris Coleman is likely to field the same trusty side that has brought so much success. Though the former centre-back isn’t afraid to give youth a chance.
It won’t be a shock if Tom Bradshaw and Emyr Hughes get some game time.
Nevertheless, with Coleman’s contract expiring in 2018, a squad overhaul is unlikely, especially when most of the starting eleven are in their mid-twenties.
Expect the same system as well. Neil Taylor and Chris Gunter bombing on as wing-backs, Ramsey and Allen pulling the strings in midfield and Bale working his magic upfront.
A huge reason why the last few years have been particularly prosperous for the Welsh is tactical consistency. Aaron Ramsey could probably spray the ball out to Gunter with his eyes closed.
On the surface, Wales’ World Cup Qualifying group, group D, doesn’t look that easy. Yet it doesn’t look particularly hard either.
Wales’ first opponents, Moldova, along with Georgia, won’t roll over but it should be 12 points out of 12 from those games.
Austria had a disastrous Euro 2016, crashing out in the group stage. It’ll be interesting to see how long it takes before manager Marcel Koller’s job comes under threat.
Koller will want to bounce back from the summer quickly, and has quality in David Alaba and Marko Arnautovic to do so. Serbia could be the dark horses in the group.
The Balkan state was in Wales’ last World Cup qualifying group, winning 6-1. Expect a closer games this campaign. Finally, the Republic of Ireland also feature in group D.
The Irish are entering a new Robbie Keane-less era, but with Shane Long upfront, they could be a tricky opponent.
In the current format, the second placed team in the qualifying group will go into a play-off, meaning to confirm a spot at the World Cup, Wales must win their group.
The Welsh have never done that, then again, there’s a first time for everything.