Well, if the performances against Montenegro and England last month represented a pace forward for the Welsh football team, then last night that step showed signs of developing into a march as they comfortably beat Switzerland 2-0. In the process, Wales ended Swiss hopes of qualification for next year’s European Championship Finals to be held in Poland and Ukraine and, for a country that has got used to qualifying for major finals over the past twenty years or so, this may suggest that we beat a side in decline. In fact, it’s quite the contrary – Switzerland were unbeaten in seven matches, they had only lost one away game in three years and were recent winners of the World Under 17’s Championship, as well as beaten finalists in last summer’s Euro Under 21 tournament.
If I were a Swiss supporter this morning, I might try to improve my spirits by shouting “we wuz robbed”, but, if I was being honest, my heart wouldn’t be in it because I’d have to admit that my team had taken the sort of comprehensive beating that doesn’t tend to happen to them often these days. True, there was a goal chalked off for the visitors when it was 0-0 courtesy of a marginal offside decision (I’m not as convinced as the TV people were that the linesman got the decision right though), the sending of Reto Ziegler looked harsh (television replays made it look less so mind), there was a possible penalty late on for a handball by sub David Vaughan and they did hit a post in the dying minutes. However, apart from the opening twenty minutes or so, it was Wales who were on the front foot and, if Craig Bellamy’s shooting had matched his impressive all round play or the referee had decided to award Wales more than just one of their penalty claims in the second half (I thought there were three legitimate shouts for one during that time), then the margin of victory could have been greater than the 4-1 Wales lost by in Basle a year ago.
As to why Wales were able to maintain and then improve on the standard of performance seen in their last two games, I would say it had a lot to do with how much more potent their attacking quartet looked compared to their Swiss counterparts – Ramsey, Bellamy, Morrison (who, for me, turned in the best target man display by a Welsh striker since John Hartson’s time) and Bale all made the Swiss defence look as full of holes as one of their cheeses at times, but the last named was often unplayable – operating on the right hand side again, Bale was superb in the second half and his calmly taken goal was no more than he deserved.
It’s hardly original to say that Gareth Bale is a very impressive footballer. Although once or twice he got a bit greedy and self indulgent when within sight of goal, his appreciation of those around him was excellent most of the time, with the way he fed Chris Gunter at times being examples of him hitting passes of a quality that not many others on the pitch could match. For me though, the thing that marks Bale out as a world class performer is the way he often manages to do his most eye catching work while travelling at a speed which makes control of the football a very difficult task indeed – as someone who used to think that the ball developed a wilful character all of it’s own as soon as I broke into a jog, I can really appreciate how impressive what Bale does is!
To give the front four all of the credit for the victory though would be to ignore the good contributions of so many others – in particular, Joe Allen looked a seasoned international player when, in fact, he was making his first start at this level and Ashley Williams again showed why he has become an automatic selection over the past couple of years. Alongside Williams, Darcy Blake justified his selection – international football definitely seems to suit him and, for someone who is often criticised by City fans for his passing, he looks at home in a team that tries to build from the back.
When you think about it though, probably the best thing about last night was that Wales turned in such a good performance while missing so many players through injury. The two Collins’, Gabbidon, Ricketts, King, Ledley, Collison and Earnshaw were all missing and David Vaughan only made the bench after suffering from tonsillitis for much of the week. Okay, perhaps not too many of those absent would have been in the starting line up, but, even in the days when we were able to compete better than we have been doing in recent years, there were not many times when a Welsh squad could lose so many players and still put put out a team capable of beating a side in the top twenty of the world rankings. Unbelievably, when you think what the mood was like going into the Montenegro game, a victory against Bulgaria in Sofia on Tuesday could see Wales finishing third in the group and the Montenegrin’s success in making sure of second place after their 2-2 draw with England should provide all of the proof they need that it is possible for this Welsh team to compete for a top two place in theiropen looking qualifying group for World Cup 2014.