Wales welcome Croatia to Cardiff in a crucial Euro 2020 qualifier on Sunday.
Victory for the visitors will secure their place at next summer’s tournament, while Wales need victory to keep on their coat tails and sustain their hopes of reaching the tournament too.
Croatia eased past Hungary 3-0 on Thursday to extend their lead at the top of Group E, while Wales were held to a 1-1 draw in Slovakia.
Ryan Giggs’ side continue to struggle to gel under his guidance, and that’s where we start our talking points…
QUALITY TO WIN, BUT QUESTIONS REMAIN
Harry Wilson believes Wales have the quality to beat Croatia on Sunday and, it’s true, they do. ‘
Giggs is overseeing a Wales generation that might just be – player for player and in terms of areas mined for talent – the best ever, and certainly in the last three decades.
The question is, whether Giggs is the man to turn the rough diamonds into gems? Right now, he certainly isn’t doing that.
Regardless of injury (Aaron Ramsey has not yet played in this qualifying campaign), acceptable peaks and troughs encountered rearing youngsters and lack of a potent striker (Wales, for all their unearthing of talent, haven’t produced a quality central striker since John Hartson), Giggs is not setting the world alight as was hoped when he took the job.
Juventus’ Ramsey was left at home on Thursday because of a tight abductor muscle in his thigh – Giggs might be protecting him in order to play on Sunday. With the likes of flamboyant Bournemouth forward David Brooks, Cherries team-mate Chris Mepham and fellow defender James Chester all out injured, Giggs still had the luxury of leaving Wilson on the bench in Trnava.
Joe Allen was at his terrier-like best in midfield, alongside RB Leipzig’s Chelsea loanee Ethan Ampadu – the 19-year-old can’t get a game for the Bundesliga side at the moment but continued his development with another confident international display. Daniel James’ rapid rise continued and he put on a delicious assist for Kieffer Moore’s goal.
Jonathan Williams’ career resurgence at Charlton – he is the Championship’s joint-leading assist maker this season – continued, while Joe Rodon, 21, put in another assured performance in just his third cap.
The worrying thing is Wales had more than enough quality and chances to put Slovakia to sleep. You wonder whether Giggs has the ability to jolt them from their slumber.
CROATIA TO GO FOR THE KILL
We could be in for entertainment in Cardiff with Wales aware they need an effervescent performance against the group leaders, who themselves will be going all out for the win that would confirm their ticket for Euro 2020.
Since reaching the highs of the World Cup final in Russia 18 months ago, the positive vibe around Vatreni (The Blazers) has worn a little thin following a fallow period.
Since that spirited 4-2 defeat to France, Zlatko Dalic’s side have won just six games from 13, losing four, including a 6-0 thrashing at the hands of Spain in the UEFA Nations League a year ago.
They’ve also been far from flawless in Group E, defeated in Hungary in March and held in Azerbaijan just last month. But they were far too good for Wales in Osijek in June, the performance far more impressive than a 2-1 win suggests.
And they’ll come to Cardiff with confidence after cracking Hungary open in Split on Thursday, easing to a 3-0 win by half-time.
Dalic had the luxury of removing captain Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic midway through the second half and that trio will likely form a formidable front six also featuring Mateo Kovacic, Ante Rebic and Bruno Petkovic in the Welsh capital.
Petkovic scored a brace against Hungary and is in venomous form, scoring five goals in six games for Dinamo Zagreb this season, while he has glided onto the international stage with four goals in his first six caps.
With Modric also in fine form, Dalic will take his side west looking to get the job done.
IS RAMBO READY FOR BATTLE?
Wales fans would have been sincerely sorry not to see attacking spark Ramsey not make the trip to Trnava on Thursday, with the 28-year-old having not featured for his nation in 11 long months.
The Dragons have missed his fire. Gareth Bale may be the poster boy, but Ramsey’s role in this Welsh side is arguably more significant.
He plays a lot further forward than he ever did during his Arsenal days. Unburdened by defensive shackles he is chief creator for Wales and his absence was keenly felt during their semi-final exit to eventual champions Portugal at the last Euros.
A highly intelligent craftsmen, Ramsey’s absence has been even more keenly felt during this inconsistent campaign. He will be delighted to see a new emerging generation springing up alongside him, but with Bale the spearhead in attack, Wales have sorely lacked their lynchpin to knit it all together.
It was hoped he’d been spared a trip to Slovakia in order to rest his worrisome thigh in a bid to be fully fit for Sunday – veteran centre-back Ashley Williams has been called back into the squad but also did not feature against Slovakia.
Giggs will have had one eye on the Croatia clash, of the belief he will need his strongest XI to combat the creativity at Dalic’s disposal. But there are fears Ramsey could miss out altogether and his thigh twinge is worse than first feared.
Even with Ramsey available the task at hand is a lofty one. But if their true talisman trots onto the field, the rest of the players and a nation will stand 10ft tall.
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