I mentioned in my piece on Friday’s match that the draw against Bosnia would only become a very good result if Wales followed it up with a win over Cyprus at Cardiff City Stadium. Well, last night they managed to do that – it was a lot tougher than it looked like being at one stage, but last night’s 2-1 win leaves them with seven points from three matches and sitting at the top of the table going into next month’s away game with group favourites Belgium.
In different circumstances, a hard fought win over opponents that had finished bottom of their qualifying group for this summer’s World Cup might have been the subject of some criticism, but what happened last night (and on Friday) has to be put into a context which, although quite normal for Welsh qualification campaigns, would have made other outcomes in the two games disappointing, but pretty understandable under the circumstances.
I don’t know what it is about Welsh players and their seemingly never ending capacity to pick up injuries during their country’s ongoing attempts to end a drought that goes back thirty eight years (not fifty six as many in the media would have you believe) since they last qualified for the latter stages of a major competition.
Actually, maybe I do know of a reason. Under some previous Welsh managerial regimes there was a definite feeling that some, by no means all, didn’t need much persuasion to cry off injured, but all of that seemed to change under Gary Speed and the trend has continued under Chris Coleman – there may be the odd exception to the rule, but the impression I get is that if someone drops out of a squad these days they are genuinely injured.
So, it must be just plain bad luck that after having nearly everyone available for the opener in Andorra, Wales have had to face up to their next two matches with a group lacking eleven players who all might well have made it into Coleman’s squad, if not first choice team, if they had been available.
Things got worse between Friday and Monday with Johnny Williams, who came in for some harsh treatment by Bosnian defenders, being ruled out as well. Therefore, there was always going to be at least one change to the Bosnia team, but, in the event, Chris Coleman opted for a further alteration – Hal Robson-Kanu was always a contender for a starting place after his impressive substitute showing on Friday, but the inclusion of Fulham winger George Williams for Ben Davies was a swap I didn’t see coming.
For me, Davies was always going to be a fixture in the team once he had established himself and I certainly didn’t think he did too badly against Bosnia, but maybe his lack of game time at Spurs since his summer move from the jacks counted against him? Whatever the reason, it was a pretty bold move by the manager as he abandoned the three centreback formation and opted for a flat back four. I say bold there because, if there was going to be a second change, I expected it to be Dave Edwards being brought in to provided a bit more midfield solidity – as it was, Wales went in with four players (Robson-Kanu, Bale, Church and George Williams) who could be considered attacking midfielders/strikers thereby placing a very heavy workload on Andy King and Joe Ledley who were expected to do the midfield donkey work.
Within seconds of the start however, those plans were in tatters as the injury jinx struck again – Simon Church fell over in an innocuous looking challenge and it was soon pretty obvious that he had dislocated his shoulder. Now, Church hardly set the world on fire against Bosnia and I think he could have been left out if Johnny Williams had been fit, but I must admit that the sight of David Cotterill coming on as Church’s replacement hardly put me into a more optimistic frame of mind because I had seen hardly anything in his previous appearances for his country which suggested he could produce the goods in a vital qualification tie.
That said, I did remember reading some good things about his form this season for Birmingham and Cotterill went on to prove my doubts were groundless as he played with a maturity and team ethic which had not always been present when I’d seen him play for club and country before. No doubt buoyed by his slightly fortunate goal (in saying that, he deserved his luck because his “shot” came from the first of a series of impressive crosses he put in), Cotterill played a full part in a dominant Welsh opening which got the further reward it deserved when Gareth Bale delightfully flicked on a King pass to send Robson-Kanu galloping through a lopsided Cypriot defence to beat the visitors dodgy keeper Kissas and make it 2-0 with barely a quarter of the game played.
Unlike against Bosnia where he grew into the game after a quiet first hour or so, Wales’ talisman was a factor from the start last night as Gareth Bale tormented the visitors with his pace, skill and shoot on sight policy which had most in the crowd thinking that further home goals were inevitable. However, although there were numerous near misses from then on, Wales had already peaked as an attacking force and the last two thirds of the game saw Cyprus offer some clues as to why they were able to go to Bosnia and win last month.
In saying that, I found the visitors a weird mixture of technical ability, naivety in footballing and tactical terms, individual incompetence and brutality which all conspired to make me feel that, even when the Cypriots, seemingly, had everything in their favour as they did for much of the second half, I still felt Wales were in control – it was a little like how I felt in the League Cup Semi Final game with Palace where, despite us only scraping through on penalties, I always believed we were going to win.
Thinking back, I was a lot more confident that night than I probably should have been, but a combination of Welsh poise and belief and Cyrpiot limitations made my confidence more justified this time. The technical ability I mentioned earlier was a factor in helping Cyprus get back into the game as their improvement gained a tangible reward via a Wayne Hennessey error when he missed Laban’s free kick on thirty six minutes – the visitors had already shown a talent for retaining the ball which ensured that they would have probably dominated the possession stats even if Wales hadn’t been reduced to ten men following King’s dismissal.
However, for all the visitor’s adherence to a passing game, they lacked the patience to fully benefit from it as, invariably someone would try a “Hollywood” pass or a shot from distance which handed possession back to Wales. They also, didn’t move Wales around enough when they had a one man advantage and the individual incompetence I mentioned earlier was always present in things like Kissas’ unsure handling and kicking and their habit of hitting a wayward backward pass which presented Wales with the opportunity to counter attack against an under manned defence.
For all of their possession, Cyprus barely ever suggested they could get anything out of the game – Hennessey had a very quiet evening and I can only remember a couple of off target headers in the second half when they genuinely threatened the Welsh goal.
The brutality I referred to came with a series of fouls on Bale which started in the fourth minute when Nikolaou was yellow carded for hacking him down. Actually, the Cyrpriots were quite clever in the way they chopped Bale down almost on a rota basis because every time German referee Grafe reached for his card in the second half following the latest assault on the Real Madrid man, I half expected it to be red, but no, the visitors always ensured that it was a different player who was doing the fouling.
This brings me on to Andy King’s red card. First thing to say is that, having now seen the TV pictures of the tackle, I think the sending off was justified, but, in saying that, King had played three hundred and nine senior games for club and country before last night and had never had a red card (he’s only been yellow carded twelve times). King is not a dirty player – this doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have been sent off, but nothing in his previous record suggests that what he did was intentional, whereas there was a cynicism and premeditation about Cyprus’ treatment of Bale that makes me think justice was not done when you consider which team ended up one short.
Did any of the fouls on Bale deserve a straight red card? I would argue that Nikolaou’s did, but it probably happened too early in the game for that to happen.
The loss of King only heaped the pressure on to our under strength midfield and, although he soon got some support when Edwards replaced George Williams, Joe Ledley deserve tremendous praise for the way he battled against the odds in both matches – he really has been an unsung hero in these two games – it’s hard to pick a Welsh Man of the Match for last night, but I would say that only James Chester rivals Ledley for our best player over the two games.
Finally, while the atmosphere last night might not have quite matched Friday’s, it was still superb and, given that the night the game was played on must have made it difficult for many living in Mid, North and West Wales to attend (there weren’t as many away fans present either) 21,000 wasn’t a bad attendance at all – there’ll probably be a similar crowd present this Saturday lunchtime when City resume their Championship programme, wouldn’t it be great if the atmosphere could match last night’s.
* pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/