Pre-match opinion from the pundits had it that defeat for either of the sides would mean their hopes of reaching the World Cup Finals in 2014 had gone and, that, probably, the manager/coach concerned was on his way out of a job as well. It’s not too surprising therefore that Chris Coleman and Craig Levein, in particular, claimed after the game that their’s had been the better team by some distance, but to my mind at least, the world rankings which placed Scotland in fifty sixth place and Wales in fifty seventh were right – perhaps not in the exact position they put the teams in, but certainly in that there is very little to separate the two of them.
I definitely don’t believe there was too much between Wales and Scotland in last night’s often flawed, but ultimately thrilling, 2-1 win for the home side at Cardiff City Stadium. Despite another below par showing by Aaron Ramsey and a performance which showed some rustiness by David Vaughan, I thought Wales’ three in central midfield edged the battle against their opponents in that area of the pitch thanks to Joe Allen’s best display in a Welsh shirt this season and, with Chris Gunter keeping things simple and Ben Davies enjoying a good full international debut, they may have just shaded the Scottish full backs as well. However, although it might not have shown on the night, Scotland definitely had the better keeper (given the success they had from his kick outs, you could also argue that Alan McGregor was their best passer!), their centrebacks looked less error prone than their Welsh counterparts and, despite Craig Davies improving things in this department when he came on, they definitely had the best target man on the pitch in Steven Fletcher.
What Scotland didn’t have though was Gareth Bale, if the Tottenham flyer had been in their side last night they would have won – it’s a simple as that. Bale was superb throughout, whether it was when cutting in from the right to fire just wide in the opening minutes, when bursting past two or three opponents to set up first half chances for Steve Morison and Ramsey, when going on lung bursting second half runs that, eventually, culminated in the penalty, which he then converted nervelessly to draw his side level, or when firing in a fantastic winning goal from twenty yards out with a minute left after running from the halfway line, the Cardiff born winger was head and shoulders above every other player on the pitch.
How Craig Levein must wish he had a Gareth Bale in his ranks. The man who, notoriously, sent his side out in a 4-6-0 formation (not in the way Spain play it either!) against the Czech Republic, this time adopted a bolder approach with Shaun Maloney, Kris Commons and James Morrison charged with offering support to lone striker Fletcher and, encouragingly for Wales with the return game in mind, they looked vulnerable to the counter attack as they committed men forward. By pairing the skillful, but defensively lightweight, Maloney on Scotland’s left with a full back in Danny Fox who offers teams a lot with his ability going forward and dead ball skills, but is someone any decent winger (let alone Gareth Bale!) would fancy his chances against, Levein again showed his intentions and, if any further proof of this were needed, then you only had to look at the substitutions he made when the score was 1-1. Bringing Kenny Miller and Jamie Mackie on for Morrison and Commons were the actions of a man who knew that another draw wasn’t good enough for his team, but he didn’t even get that in the end and was left to berate the officials after what must have been a devastating defeat for him.
On the face of it, the Scots had plenty of reasons to feel they were on the wrong end of the major decisions last night. Certainly, the linesman who deemed that Charlie Adam’s cross had gone out of play before Steven Fletcher nodded in from about two yards out got things completely wrong on that score, but then I’d say he was also in error for not raising his flag for offside when Maloney passed to the Stoke midfield man (the pause button on my remote control backs me up on this as well!) – in a way, I suppose this is a case of two wrongs making a right, because two errors still ended up with the right decision being made as Wales were awarded a free kick. As for claims that Ramsey should have been given a second yellow card for diving, I’m not sure that the evidence of a dive is that convincing – in fact, I thought this was one of two decent penalty claims Wales had in the second half to go with what was one of the most blatant and obvious penalties I’ve seen (it was almost as obvious as Joe Jordan’s handball in 1977!) when Christophe Berra virtually assaulted Davies.
Although I accept, I’m showing my Welsh bias a bit there in the last paragraph, I would say that when a side have been refused a reasonable shout for a penalty and then a much stronger one shortly afterwards, the law of averages says that the chances of a third one being upheld increase (especially when the attacker is travelling as fast as Bale was). In fact, as I watched the replays of the incident, I thought it was the weakest of the three penalty appeals that Wales had, but with Maloney saying “I think there might have been a little contact.” it would appear that the ref got it right.
Therefore, I can’t have too much sympathy with Scottish claims that what happened last night was somehow a pay back for what happened in 1977 and 1985 when Wales were on the wrong end of controversial penalty decisions in World Cup qualifiers with Scotland. To be fair, it tends to get forgotten that Wales needed a win to qualify in the game at Liverpool that saw Joe Jordan hand the ball and get his side a penalty and the score was 0-0 at the time, but eight years later at Ninian Park, we were 1-0 up and less than ten minutes away from qualifying for a Play Off with Australia for a place in Mexico 1986 when the dodgy decision to penalise David Phillips for handball was given.
Wales are still owed big time when it comes to important games with Scotland as far as I’m concerned because if, as expected, Belgium and Croatia build upon their early domination of the group with home wins over the two British teams on Tuesday night, then last night’s match will have only been about bragging rights – the likelihood is that the return game next year will see us and Scotland fighting it out for the minor places in the qualifying group rather than being involved in a shoot out which decides which team makes it through to the next stage of the competition (as was the case in 1977 and 1985).
Despite this, last night’s win was a big boost for the beleaguered Chris Coleman and his young team. Speaking as someone who wanted him out after last month’s games, I’d say he had a good night against Scotland. Okay, his lack of options on the bench may have helped him in a way, but selecting Davies ahead of Sam Ricketts was a brave move which worked and, although their attempts to play out from the back sometimes almost got them into serious trouble, it was at least good to see Wales try to play through a midfield, which has to be the strongest part of the current team, rather than resort to the long back to front stuff, which there had been far more of in recent matches than was seen under Gary Speed. I’d also say that it is encouraging for Coleman that, despite the awful result and performance in Serbia, there was little sign, both in terms of the number of players who turned up for this round of internationals and in the attitude shown against Scotland, that the team were in any way against him and didn’t care.
The results elsewhere in the group confirmed the suspicion that Serbia aren’t as good as Wales made them look last month and that while Macedonia will always be competitive, they are going to end up as also rans. I mentioned before that the chances are that Croatia and Belgium will strengthen their hold on the group on Tuesday and so it may well be that Wales will find themselves in a battle for third place with the other three teams. Defeat last night would have left us trailed off in last place with our only aim probably being to try and get the better of Macedonia in our two games with them to give us a chance of coming fifth, but, for now at least, we can cling to a slim hope of a top two finish while knowing that there is more chance of that happening to us than there is with a couple of our group rivals. Third would always have represented an excellent finish for Wales in my book and, probably, fourth is a more realistic and reachable target, but, although it may not be quick enough for some, it would represent progress in terms of giving us a better ranking for subsequent qualifying groups – hopefully, some of the other good youngsters we have might be able to offer the majestic Bale a bit more support by then.
* pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/