Gareth Bale will miss Wales’ final two Group D World Cup qualifiers, leaving Dragons fans agonising and Irish supporters rejoicing – but the Welsh wizard’s absence might well prove to be a blessing in disguise.
On first glance it’s the worst possible time for Bale’s latest injury woes to have hit – the 28-year-old is ruled out until likely the play-offs with an injured calf.
Chris Coleman’s side face two crucial games against Georgia (Friday) before they welcome the Republic of Ireland for what should prove to be a mouthwatering crescendo to European qualifying at the Cardiff City Stadium on Monday.
They’re a gritty, passionate nation the Welsh, but at such a pivotal point on the road to Russia, can they really hope to navigate their way to six points without the big game experience of the Real Madrid superstar?
The answer is yes. Rather than wallow, Wales should be galvanised by the injury to their supposed talisman – whose undoubted importance to the men in red shouldn’t distract attention from some stellar members of Bale’s supporting cast.
Yes, statistics show Wales have won just nine per cent of games (11) under Coleman without Bale – compared to 24 per cent overall, while the figure for wins is 48 per cent both under Coleman and overall.
But that is to gloss over the contributions of Wales’ other talents – like midfield dynamo Aaron Ramsey and versatile defender Ben Davies.
Bale was an absolute phenom as Wales powered to a place at Euro 2016 – the first time Wales had graced a major tournament in nearly six decades, since a 17-year-old Pele scored the only goal as Brazil knocked them out of the 1958 World Cup in the quarter-finals.
He rocketed in seven of Wales’ 11 goals during qualifying and directly contributed to nine in total – but in eight games in Group D his influence has waned as he endured an injury-hit 2016/17 campaign for both Wales and Los Blancos.
He’s still netted four goals and an assist but that’s only five of 12 goals he’s contributed to, with two games still left to play. He hasn’t registered in either of Wales’ last four games – with Arsenal’s Ramsey rising to the occasion and scoring two goals in that period.
Despite injuries preventing his Madrid outings, Bale has only missed one game during qualifying. But he’s often struggled to impact proceedings with teams man or double marking him out of games, or finding himself isolated up front as oppositions pack their defence.
Even though his rich form throughout the previous qualifying campaign continued into the European Championships, it was Ramsey who was truly key to Wales’ stunning run to the semi-finals.
And it was the absence of the Gunners’ schemer that was really telling as Wales finally ran out of firepower in a 2-0 defeat to eventual champions Portugal.
He’s been terrific but it’s not as if ‘Rambo’ – as Ramsey is affectionately known – has been a one-man army for Wales. Hal Robson-Kanu, Joe Allen and Sam Vokes have all made key contributions during qualifying this time around.
There was also a dream debut for rising teenage talent Ben Woodburn – the 17-year-old Liverpool prospect announced himself to the world with the winning goal off the bench against Austria last month that sparked Wales’ Russia dream back into life following five successive draws.
Tottenham left-back Ben Davies, one of the form players of the early Premier League season, has long been a key cog in the Wales machine and may also be deployed in a more attacking role by Coleman over the course of the next few days.
That’s not to say Bale won’t be missed – and despite being second in the group, one point ahead of Ireland, Wales find themselves in a precarious position.
One of UEFA’s nine second-placed teams misses out on a play-off spot and Wales – with eight points against the teams ranked first to fifth in the group – are currently ninth alongside Bosnia and Herzegovina (who occupy eighth by virtue of a superior goal difference).
So there’s work to do for Wales. But should they secure a play-off berth, how much of a boost would that be, in addition to the prospect of welcoming Bale, the man for the big occasion, back into the fold for a two-legged do or die tie for a place at a first World Cup in 60 years?