As the final weekend of qualifying matches approaches, Wales’s place at Euro 2020 remains in the balance. Fourth in Group E, the 2016 semi-finalists are four points off second-placed Hungary albeit with a game in hand.
They face the Hungarians in the final round of qualifiers next Tuesday where, should Wales first beat Azerbaijan on Saturday as expected, a spot at next summer’s tournament will be at stake. Should they lose in Baku, however, their hopes will already be over.
While they could still qualify, it is fair to say that Wales have been largely underwhelming so far in a group that also includes Slovakia and Croatia.
They lost 2-1 and drew 1-1 against World Cup finalists Croatia, who would also be expected to qualify, but Wales are – on paper, at least – superior to both Hungary and Slovakia, against whom they have lost and drawn away games respectively.
It has also left them dependent on the results of Slovakia, who are currently third on 10 points and would qualify with wins against Croatia and Azerbaijan this weekend. Wales will likely need a favour from the table-topping Croatians on Saturday, given Azerbaijan have just one point so far.
For Wales, a total of eight points from six games has left Ryan Giggs’s long-term position as manager in question, but a late, successful push for qualification should see him safe until next summer’s tournament at least.
With Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Daniel James, Harry Wilson, David Brooks, Ben Davies, Joe Allen and Chris Mepham among a number of exciting and talented players in the first-team squad when fit, there is little reason why the Welsh are not yet on the home stretch.
Admittedly, former Arsenal midfielder Ramsey has not featured once during this qualification campaign due to injury, but the depth of this Wales squad should be enough given the stature of their opponents, who are lower in Fifa’s world rankings.
Wales have particularly struggled going forward, scoring just six goals in their six games and averaging only four shots on target per match, as they have found it difficult to create chances.
While two of those goals have come from Manchester United’s rising star James, it is unsurprising that two others have come from talisman Bale.
The 30-year-old is “desperate” to play in this weekend’s pivotal qualifiers according to Giggs, despite not having featured in a single matchday squad for Real Madrid since the last international break.
He was substituted against Croatia following a knock to the calf having scored Wales’s equalising goal.
His inclusion in Giggs’s squad has led to criticism from Spanish media, but his manager said Bale was used to the negative press he gets at Madrid.
“I think especially lately Gareth is used to the speculation and the bit of stick that he’s getting,” Giggs told the BBC.
“He has done fantastically for Madrid since he has gone there, [winning] four Champions Leagues.
“Even this season he has looked really good and been one of their better players. In some parts of the press there is an agenda, but I know Gareth and he’s a strong enough character to deal with that.”
The forward has been embroiled in a transfer saga at Madrid that dates back a number of years and yet still feels no closer to a resolution.
Having fallen out of favour with head coach Zinedine Zidane, Bale looked destined for the exit door on the Frenchman’s return to the club this summer, but a mooted move to Chinese Super League side Jiangsu Suning never materialised.
This weekend with Wales he will once again be able to leave behind his differences with Zidane, harsh criticism from the Madrid-based press and return to doing what he does best: playing football.
Wales will need him at his best if they are to guarantee six points, and even then it may not be enough.