Last night, after years and years of talk about our how our own “golden generation” could be the ones to finally take us to a major tournament, Wales turned in a performance in a competitive match which suggested that such thinking might not be just the normal Welsh hyperbole we see when one of our own does anything remotely worthwhile on the international stage. The 2-1 win over Montenegro at a sparsely populated Cardiff City Stadium was fully deserved and should, probably, have been more clear cut than it ended up being – it doesn’t mean that supporters should start booking their trips to Brazil in 2014, but, surely, it should signal the start of a process that will ensure that the nightmare of being in pot 6 in the draw for a major tournament was just a one off.
The presence of Earnie on the bench probably didn’t come as a shock to many City fans, but I daresay that the inclusion of Darcy Blake at centre back in the starting line up did. Blake wasn’t faultless by any means, but, in some ways, his performance mirrored the teams in that he grew into the game after a bit of an edgy start. In all probability, James Collins will be back in his place for the England game on Tuesday, but I’d say that Blake’s display made the prospect of him featuring against a side that will, almost certainly, play with mobile and quick forward players, not as unlikely as it might at first appear.
Blake must have wondered what sort of night he was in for in the opening minutes as the visitors slick and incisive passing made life uncomfortable for a team which, understandably, looked low on confidence. Montenegro carved Wales open down their left hand side within the first minute, but a decent opportunity was wasted with an off target shot. This set a sort of precedent for the team who were ranked an amazing ninety eight places above Wales in the FIFA world ranking as their wildly optimistic and poorly executed long range shooting became the main feature of the first twenty minutes.
Although there was little in the way of an end product, there were encouraging signs for Wales as the game went on and, despite Montenegro’s shoot on sight policy, it was the home side who had the first on target attempt when Craig Bellamy’s mishit volley was held by Bozovic after what looked suspiciously like a foul on Joe Ledley as he challenged for a Gareth Bale cross. Ledley was willing to make forward runs all night and a few minutes later, it was his central midfield partner David Vaughan who burst forward and delivered a wicked low cross which the keeper should probably have done better with than turn the ball into the path of Steve Morrison, who scored from close range.
Wales visibly grew in confidence after this goal and completely dominated the middle third of the match as they caused a Montenegro defence that had only been breached once in it’s five previous group matches no end of problems. Bale was superb in this period and Bellamy wasn’t far behind him – the former’s long range drive a couple of minutes after the goal had to be turned over by Bozovic and then the keeper had to react smartly to turn aside Morrison’s effort after the striker had shown a decent turn of speed to get clear of his marker. Ashley Williams also had a header cleared off the line before the interval and with the visitors only managing another poor effort from a well worked chance in reply, Wales’ 1-0 half time lead was definitely merited – the only disappointing note being that two (Vaughan and Bellamy) of the three Welsh players booked by the poor and fussy Italian referee would be suspended for the England match. Bellamy was very unlucky (as was the other Welsh player yellow carded, Ashley Williams) as his caution was for something that barely warranted a free kick, while Signor Banti kept his cards in his pocket in the second half for far worse fouls by the already booked Balic, the visitors left back.
Balic was given a torrid time by Bale all night as the experiment of playing the Spurs man on the right proved to be a real success and when Williams picked him out with a long ball four minutes into the second half, the resultant low cross was turned home by Aaron Ramsey who, as he normally does in such positions, made scoring look easy. Actually, in many ways, the most encouraging aspect of the evening was that Wales managed to play so well without a stellar performance from their captain – quietly effective is how I would describe Ramsey’s contribution. That said, the decision to substitute him with twenty minutes left for the more defensively minded Andrew Crofts looked a mistake to me at the time and I think what followed in the next ten minutes or so proved this to be the case. In his defence, Gary Speed did say after the game that Ramsey was suffering from cramp, but, if that was the case, Joe Allen looked to be the better option to me because he would have offered something a bit more similar to Ramsey.
Wales simply stopped playing virtually as soon as the change was made and, if anything, it provided a boost for the outplayed visitors who, very quickly, seemed to see some hope where previously there had been none. Territory was surrendered as Wales sat deeper and it wasn’t long before Jovetic proved a couple of things – first, that his big reputation is justified and second, that Montenegro were capable of getting good shots away as he cut inside Chris Gunter to power home a real pile driver from the edge of the penalty area. For a while things got pretty tense and Wales did have to endure a few dodgy moments after that, but, it should also be said that they were able to regain some of their former poise and Crofts did his bit in ensuring that Wales kept their lead intact. With Wayne Hennessey looking confident and secure in goal, Wales were able to see things out to gain a much needed win and, if, as I believe, Speed could be criticised for that switch, then it’s only fair to say that he should get the credit for the way Wales set about their task, for the way they started the second half (I thought their attitude was spot on in those opening minutes after the break) and for the use of man of the match Bale on the right.
Last night was my first experience of the Canton Stand in the new ground and overall I enjoyed it – it was a good game (made all the better because I was expecting so little from it beforehand) and the view was great. However, I must admit that I didn’t much appreciate some of the stuff being sung by some of those behind me. Maybe it’s (another!) sign of me turning into a miserable old git, but I find much of what seems to pass as humour these days to be of the smart alec type, usually at someone else’s expense. The songs aimed at the team in general and Steve Morrison in particular after we went 1-0 up were examples of this – in my book, the Welsh performance last night deserved better support than it got and I’m not just talking about those who didn’t turn up there.