Wales Stays Top

by Satish Sekar at the Cardiff City Stadium © Satish Sekar (October 18th 2014)

The Dragons Deliver

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A sublime team goal finished off by Readingʼs Hal Robson-Kanu was the winner as Wales – reduced to ten men early in the second half – held on to beat Cyprus 2-1 in Cardiff tonight. A first minute injury forced Simon Church from the pitch. He was eventually replaced by Cardiff Cityʼs David Cotterill. It proved to be an inspired substitution by Walesʼ manager Chris Coleman.

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With 12 minutes gone Cotterrillʼs cross from the left flank eluded everyone. There is a reason that APOELʼs keeper Tasos Kissas is not Pambos Christodoulouʼs first choice. If there was any doubt it was removed by an absolutely awful performance between the sticks. He spilled far more than he held, or even parried and almost deserved an assist on Cotterillʼs goal, failing to make any contact. To his embarrassment it went straight in.

If the first had traces of the ridiculous, the second was superb – a goal worthy of winning any match. It began deep in Welsh territory with skipper Ashley Williams finding Andy King in space. Kingʼs pass to Gareth Bale was flicked on exquisitely by the worldʼs most expensive footballer for Robson-Kanu to latch onto and shoot between Kissasʼ legs midway through the first half.

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Errors

Wales dominated play, but an uncharacteristic blunder by Crystal Palaceʼs Wayne Hennessey after 36 minutes brought the Cypriots back into the game. Vincent Labanʼs free-kick from the right wing had echoes of Cotterillʼs goal, although Labanʼs effort went in off Hennesseyʼs hand. It also had a small dose of irony as it was Cotterillʼs challenge that gave the free-kick away.

Meanwhile, some rustic Cypriot challenges, especially on Bale were going unpunished. Cards were brandished, but Bale was denied protection. Four years earlier Wayne Rooney blasted the refereeʼs performance in Englandʼs match against Montenegro. He claimed that the German referee Manuel Gräfe failed to protect players from ʻagriculturalʼ challenges. It was a similar story tonight as Gräfe refused to protect Bale adequately. Coleman wasnʼt aware of the precedent, but he didnʼt seem surprised when we informed him about it.

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Within three minutes of the restart a poorly timed challenge by Andy King on Cyprusʼ captain Constantinos Makridis gave Gräfe the opportunity to brandish a red card. Bale protested vociferously and Gräfe booked him. It made for a nervy second half. It was far from pretty football, but it was effective and the points were the priority – mission accomplished.

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Inconsistent”, was Williamsʼ one-word summary of Gräfeʼs refereeing tonight. Coleman went further. “The referee”? Coleman said. “Iʼm not going to … Iʼm disappointed, not because Gareth Bale is our star player, but he needs – players need protection. The Cypriot players need protection if weʼre going to go in heavy. The refereeʼs there to say that, but thatʼs not happening and vice versa, but we never felt that we got enough protection, no”.

Coleman went further. “I think players like Bale, Messi and Ronaldo, more often than not, theyʼre in possession, theyʼre running into trouble,” he said. “If youʼre going to get kicked and youʼre expecting to get kicked, thatʼs football, but the refereeʼs there to make sure that people are punished and if theyʼre not being punished – if too many things are going to be left alone – then the defenderʼs going to come back and do the same thing more and more if heʼs not being punished, so that shouldnʼt happen”.

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Cometh the Hour

Not since the heady days of Gary Speedʼs reign as Wales manager have team and fans shared such belief that the Dragons will qualify for the finals of a major tournament again. His legacy is in tact. After a difficult start Coleman clearly has his players playing for him and wanting to represent Wales.

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Wales remain top of Group B. Andorra remain rooted to the bottom, but the nature of their pitch and tactics mean they are harder to beat than many expected. Despite their heroics at the World Cup Safet Sušićʼs Bosnia-Herzegovina are under-achieving. Belgium on four points have a game in hand against Israel, who are in second place to Wales a point behind with a game in hand and Cyprus have three, but have now lost to both Israel and Wales.

While everyone expected Belgium to win the group, the battle for qualification is proving far more open than expected. Before playing Wales, Cypriot manager Christodoulou offered these prophetic words. “I think Belgium is a very strong team and favourite for the first place of the group”, he said. “The rest of the teams will fight for the second and third place. With the results we have seen so far I think all the teams have the right to dream, have the right to fight for the second or third place in the group”.

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Coleman agrees it is an open group. “Weʼve said, letʼs get half way through the group and letʼs be up there – there or thereabouts to make sure we keep the excitement going, keep the public interested in it and weʼre doing that, you know, topping the group after three games”, he said. “Thatʼs good. Now weʼve got to go into the lionʼs den next month in Belgium. Iʼm looking forward to it. It will be a good game and weʼve got go there and get something and then players will relax after that, so itʼs all to play for”. An appointment with history appears within their grasp.

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