I advocated picking James Collins ahead of Darcy Blake in the starting line up for Wales in their opening World Cup 2014 qualifying game with Belgium in a pre match discussion on a Cardiff City messageboard yesterday. My reason for doing so was that Coillins’ presence would go some way towards nullifying the aerial threat posed by a talented Belgian team in general and the towering Marouane Fellaini in particular and, when the West Ham centre half emphatically headed clear the visitor’s first corner and then did really well to, somewhat luckily, divert a right wing cross over the bar when an own goal was a real possibility, I was quietly congratulating myself on being such a perceptive and talented football analyst!
I was getting ahead of myself however. I had been aware that including Collins in the team would be a calculated risk because he had made individual errors in Wales’ first four matches in qualification for Euro 2012 which cost us goals, but, I figured that a chance to redeem himself in a new campaign would draw a good performance from him. All four of those matches in which Collins had made errors had been lost and so yet another Welsh attempt to qualify for a major tournament had ended almost before it had begun. Ironically, Wales won three out of the four remaining group games without Collins in the team, but, I knew best – we needed him last night and surely someone with so many Premiership games behind him couldn’t let his country down again?
Now, the truth is that Belgium would probably have gone on to win without Collins’ rash lunge in on Guillaume Gillet in the twenty fifth minute which saw him, rightly in my opinion, given a straight red card by Swedish referee Johannesson (I’ll return to him later), but Wales were doing a good job of frustrating the Belgians before then. With Joe Allen crying off with illness just before kick off to join Wayne Hennessey, Neil Taylor, Andrew Crofts, Joe Ledley, Jack Collison, David Vaughan (named on the bench last night, but, surely, not match fit having not played a single game for Sunderland this season because of injury) and Craig Bellamy amongst those absent, it was inevitable that Wales would have to play in a certain way against opponents who had all of their very considerable armoury of big guns available for selection.
Chris Coleman decided to use Ashley Williams in Allen’s role and, although the Liverpool man’s passing was missed, the centreback was doing a useful job, in defensive terms anyway, in his unusual role as Wales, playing a bit too much route one stuff for my liking, looked to hit Belgium on the break while relying heavily on some Gareth Bale magic to help break their scoring duck under their new manager. One superb run and not so good cross from the man who, despite the array of Premiership stars in the Belgian team, was probably the best footballer on the pitch suggested that such a policy could work, while a David Edwards shot into the side netting after Steve Morrison had nodded on a long free kick was the closest either side came to a goal in the first quarter of an hour, but, after Collins’ moment of madness everything changed as Wales were often forced to use lone striker Morrison in a more defensive midfield role as the visitors dominated possession.
Still Wales resisted bravely with Darcy Blake, Williams and the composed Adam Matthews all excelling defensively while Chris Gunter stuck to his task well despite sometimes being given a tough time by Dries Mertens. In front of them, the five remaining outfield players all gave everything and it was so frustrating that, with the considerable boost of getting to half time at 0-0 in sight, they gave up such a cheap goal from a set piece just a few minutes before the break. The second half therefore became a much easier exercise for a Belgian team who knew that, unless they made a bad mistake or fell victim to a moment of Bale or Ramsey magic, they had already done enough to win. That’s not to say that they stopped looking for further goals, but the anxiety which had shown signs of creeping into their game at times in the first forty five minutes in the face of Wales’ stubborn defensive resistance had now disappeared.
Vertonghen’s powerful free kick (could Myhill have done better with it?) in the last ten minutes probably gave the scoreline more of a look which reflected the balance of play, but, not for the first time, they were helped by a referee who may have got the major decision of the game right, but got so many other things wrong. If you look through the entries to this blog, I think it’s fair to say that you won’t find that many which are critical of match officials (I’m not saying they aren’t there, but I’d be surprised if they amounted to more than, say, 20% of the match reports I’ve done), but last night was the third game I’ve watched in the flesh in the past six days and each time I got the distinct impression that the referees generally favoured the side playing the one I was supporting. Andy D’Urso was useless in the Wolves match, whoever it was who reffed the Under 21 game with QPR felt that he had to blow his whistle (mostly against City) every thirty seconds and Mr Johannesson certainly didn’t endear himself to home supporters with his uneven interpretations of the law – choosing to ignore a push (arguably inside the penalty area) by Kompany on Simon Church, yet penalising Ramsey for a nothing challenge on Lukaku for the free kick which produced Belgium’s second goal being just two examples.
The very impressive Belgian support lapped up their sides win (good on them for the Gary Speed banner unfurled before the game as well) and I think there has to be every chance that they’ll be watching the side play in Brazil in 2014, but it’s not so long ago when this much hyped and still young team they support was thought of in a completely different way by their fans. Less than three years ago, I wrote a piece on here (it’s below the one about my all time best Welsh team) using Belgium as an example of unfulfilled promise and, if you don’t want to read my ramblings, I’d urge you to at least have a look at the Guardian article I put a link to outlining what a shambles Belgian football was at that time. Obviously, it would appear that their gifted group of young players have sorted themselves out in the intervening period, but, apart from Hazard who is still very young, most of them were at the same sort of age back in 2009 which Wales’ better players (Craig Bellamy apart) are now. This is still a very young Welsh team and, even if it’s not going to be for the 2014 World Cup, I can see them qualifying, or coming very close to doing so, for a major tournament in the next eight years or so – being able to get something like our strongest team out onto the pitch would certainly help in this regard mind.
Yes, experience does count for a lot in football, yet it was, arguably, the most experienced player in last night’s Welsh team who made the sort of mistake which you could never see the likes of Matthews, Taylor, Williams, Allen, Ramsey and Bale (amongst others) making. It’s now almost seven and a half years since James Collins left City, this is his eighth season at Premiership level and, for all but the first of those, he’s been a first team regular wherever he has played. Although he’s looked more fallible lately, I’d say that, generally speaking, he’s established himself as a good, if by no means great, performer in the Premiership and yet, he’s become an accident waiting to happen for his country. To me, this proves that, although the Sky hype would never have you believe it, there is still quite a jump in standards between club and international football – Collins doesn’t seem to be able to handle it, but I’m still confident that the six players I mentioned earlier in this paragraph can (and I believe there are a few others who can join them), the future for the Welsh team is still bright, but, having had to wait for so long to see their team deliver, it might be that supporters will have to stay patient for a little while longer.