When Wales and Scotland were paired together in the qualifying groups for the 2014 World Cup, there was much talk of how the two matches would be typically British blood and thunder affairs with time and space at a premium and tackles flying in everywhere. The first game at Cardiff City Stadium in October lived up to that billing as Wales emerged from a breathless encounter played in a downpour with a 2-1 win largely down to the efforts of one man.
Gareth Bale was tremendous that night – the virtually unanimous view was that he was the difference between the two teams and when you consider his form in the weeks and months since then, it’s hardly surprising that much of the media punditry before last night’s game at Hampden Park was along the lines of “stop Bale and you stop Wales”. Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Scots were talking about nothing else as a procession of ex pros’ were wheeled out to give their views – for example, Joe Jordan favoured a cautious tactical approach from his countrymen and in this interview Dundee manager John Brown seemed to advocate clogging the man increasingly described as the third best player in the world!
There was an added complication in that the days leading up to the match saw Bale missing training and when stories which still alluded to the virus he was, apparently, suffering from appeared on the morning of the match, I began to think that he would not be fit to start. In the event, Bale was in the Wales team for new Scotland manager Gordon Strachan’s first competitive match in charge and, with the weather again playing it’s part as a blizzard settled over Glasgow for the ninety minutes, everyone was prepared for another frantic Gareth Bale v Scotland encounter.
In the event, things didn’t go anything like as predicted. True, Scotland stuck to the script, they seemed to have taken John Brown’s interview to heart – indeed, they didn’t limit themselves to just kicking Wales’ dangerman, anyone in a red shirt appeared fair game! Much of what the Scots did carried the desperation of a team playing in local derby between the two sides at the bottom of the league, but Wales stubbornly refused to adhere to the role that had been created for them.
After all, how can you be a one man team when the man in question turns out to be something of a bit part player? Of course, anyone as good as Gareth Bale is will have some sort of influence on proceedings whenever he plays and he did have Wales’ best first half goal attempt when he forced McGregor to beat out a shot from twenty five yards, but he played and looked like someone who had not fully recovered from the virus he had been suffering from. A knock to his ankle didn’t help matters either and it wasn’t a surprise when Bale didn’t reappear for the second half following a muted first forty five minutes.
So, 1-0 down and without their talisman, there was no way back for Wales, right? Well, no actually, the general consensus was how on earth can a team be so dominant and still be losing – what’s more Wales hadn’t got on top by bettering Scotland in the up and at them, kick anything that moves stakes, they had done it by playing calm and controlled football which had the Scots chasing shadows at times in the first half an hour especially. Right from the first kick Wales imposed themselves on proceedings – the 4-2-3-1 formation they started out with mirrored Scotland’s, but the difference between the two sides was a stark one, where confident Welshmen had time and options when in possession, the jittery Scots looked isolated and hurried on the rare occasions they had the ball.
If there was a criticism of Wales in the first half, then it was that nothing tangible had come of their superiority – their possession football looked good, but, in terms of chances, Scotland’s isolated and more direct attacks had carried more menace. Scotland improved as the half went on (they couldn’t have carried on being that bad!) and it didn’t come as a complete surprise when Grant Hanley got the better of Sam Ricketts to head his side in front from a corner.
Even without Bale though, there was no reason to panic. Crystal Palace’s Johnny Williams was charged with filling the Bale role on his full international debut and it is to the nineteen year old’s immense credit that he did a passable impersonation of Wales’ matchwinner – on this evidence, the hype regarding a young player in his first full season in the game is justified this time.
However, it was Aaron Ramsey who was at the heart of Wales’ superiority, as he turned in a performance which I thought was as good as anything he has produced since his injury three years ago. Although his influence waned to some extent during the middle third when Scotland enjoyed their best period of the game, Ramsey bossed proceedings by linking things together in a deeper role than he has often filled for his country. With the selfless Joe Ledley providing fine support alongside him, Ramsey looked on his game from the start and, for someone who is often criticised for his lack of pace, revealed an ability to get clear of opponents (as in the build up to the awarding of the penalty which brought Wales level) which, if repeated consistently, will add much to his game.
Yes, Scotland weren’t the best opponents, but, by the same token, Ramsey didn’t have many players around him of the quality he has every week at Arsenal and with, ninety three minutes on the clock, it looked like he had steered his side to a win with a performance which would have done wonders for his confidence. Unfortunately though, there are vulnerabilities in his game which weren’t there before and the contrast between his disciplinary record before and after his injury is a marked one. Ironically for someone who looks to lack self belief at times now when playing for his club, the error which led to his red card stemmed from over confidence and although he got some praise for doing the professional thing in “taking a hit for the team”, it shouldn’t never have come to that – it was a silly mistake which blotted an otherwise excellent performance.
With Ramsey in that form, a fit Bale in front of him and similar noteable performances from the likes of Gunter, Ben Davies, Robson-Kanu and King when he came on, Wales could have perhaps shocked Croatia on Tuesday at Swansea, but with the first named definitely out and the second named also struggling to make it, I think it’s too much to expect anything against the team who I reckon will just edge out Belgium for first place in the group. However third place, with the favours it can do us when it comes to draws for future tournaments, is now a realistic target and, given what happened in our first two games, Chris Coleman deserves credit for both making that a possibility and for the brave selection, tactical approach and manner in which last night’s win came about.
With all of those medals in the Olympics and the rugby team’s domination of the Six Nations Championship in recent years (climaxed by a performance against England which was the best I’ve seen in over thirty years), it’s a good time for Welsh sport and football is playing a full part in that. Cardiff, Swansea, Wrexham (good luck to them at Wembley tomorrow) and Newport are all having fine seasons. Also, the Under 21’s began their latest European Championship campaign in a group where you’d like to think they have a decent chance of finishing in the top two with a 1-0 win over Moldova last night, but, in it’s way, going to Scotland and winning in the manner they did with a side missing players like Hennessey, Matthews, Taylor, Allen and Vaughan (and having to make do without Bale for forty five minutes) is a really notable achievement – well done to all involved.