Wales on brink of ‘something special’

Chris Coleman believes Wales are on the brink of “something special” and beating Belgium tonight (7.45pm, Live on Sky Sports 5) would prove it as victory would put them among the top seeds for next month’s 2018 World Cup draw.

Wales on brink of ‘something special’

It would cap a remarkable rise for Wales as four years ago, when the 2014 World Cup draw was made, they were ranked 112th in the world and in the bottom band of seeds.

They had sunk so low, they were actually beneath the Faroe Islands and in the same pot as Andorra, Kazakhstan and San Marino — and Wales manager Coleman admits the prospect of joining European super-powers like Italy and Germany as top seeds at the St Petersburg draw is an enticing one.

“In my industry we’re told to play everything down. Never look past the next game, which I don’t,” Coleman said ahead of the Euro 2016 qualifier with Belgium in Cardiff.

“But we’re in this situation and it’s a possibility. It’s something to look forward to — so why play it down? That will be great if we do it.” Coleman’s side are now 22nd on the Fifa table and have lost only once in 10 matches, a 2-0 friendly defeat to the Netherlands more than 12 months ago.

Belgium, ranked second in the world and packed with household names, present one of their biggest tests yet but Wales held them to a goalless draw in Brussels last November.

That result, in particular, gave the nation belief that the current crop of players could end Wales’ 58-year wait to appear at a major tournament and Coleman was in no mood to dilute that expectation ahead of a 33,000 sell-out at the Cardiff City Stadium.

“We haven’t just got the talent on the pitch, we’ve got the mentality off it and that’s why I believe this group will do something special,” Coleman said.

“We haven’t qualified since 1958, so it’s not as if we’re following the last team before us, and we’ve got to prove to ourselves that we’re good enough.” Coleman will once again pin the country’s attacking hopes on Real Madrid superstar Gareth Bale, who has scored four of Wales’ seven goals in qualifying so far.

“Gareth knows with his capabilities that he can change the game in a second in a good way for us. And I think he thrives on that,” Coleman said.

Belgium sent out an ominous message in their 4-3 victory in France on Sunday with Chelsea’s double Footballer of the Year Eden Hazard, who will lead the Red Devils in Cardiff in the absence of the suspended Vincent Kompany, at his brilliant best.

Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini misses out with a groin injury after scoring twice in Paris and Coleman says Wales are relishing coming up against such distinguished opponents.

“There is no fear in our camp, I promise you that,” he said. “Anticipation, but no fear.”

Meanwhile veteran Dutch midfielder Wesley Sneijder needs no reminding of just what is in on the line for Holland in tonight’s crucial Euro 2016 Group A qualifier in Latvia.

The Oranje have left themselves with little further margin for error if they are to reach the finals in France next summer following two defeats from five matches.

With leaders Czech Republic hosting second-placed Iceland, the Netherlands can haul themselves back into contention with victory in Riga.

However, coach Guus Hiddink’s men were lacklustre as they blew a 3-1 lead to lose 4-3 against the United States in Amsterdam last week, with two goals conceded in the closing two minutes.

Veteran midfielder Wesley Sneijder believes the loss to the Americans acted as a “good wake-up call” which will focus the squad for Friday’s game.

He said: “This happens sometimes at the end of season, but we have had our knuckles tapped and everyone is now a lot sharper, otherwise we might have gone to Riga with a bit of a feeling of we are off on a holiday.” Ron Vlaar is injured but Memphis Depay, set to join Van Gaal at Manchester United next season, is expected to feature after resuming training following a foot injury.

Iceland, meanwhile, will be out to avenge November’s loss to the Czech Republic in Plzen, which was their only defeat in Group A so far.

In Group H, Croatia will not have the support of their fans in their behind-closed-doors clash with Italy at the Poljud stadium in Split tonight (7.45pm) but coach Niko Kovac still expects his side to hold off the Azzurri.

The teams face each other in the top-of-the-table Euro 2016 Group H qualifier, with Croatia serving a one-match crowd ban because of racist chants by their fans during a 5-1 home victory over Norway in March.

“It’s tragic for us and for the fans that no supporters will be allowed in the stadium,” Kovac said.

“Considering the circumstances, I would be happy with a draw, more so because we are without injured (Real Madrid midfielder) Luka Modric and (Lokomotiv Moscow) defender Vedran Corluka, who is suspended.” Croatia held Italy to a 1-1 draw in Milan back in November and have won all three of their home qualifiers.

For Italy, Southampton striker Graziano Pelle is set to start alongside AC Milan’s Stephan El Shaarawy and Lazio’s Antonio Conte in Italy’s attack.

Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic will lead Croatia’s midfield line with Leicester striker Andrej Kramaric set to partner Atletico Madrid’s Mario Mandzukic in Croatia’s attack.

More in this section


Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox