WALES SEEK LIFT-OFF
Coleman’s side out to put their World Cup campaign back on track against Ireland
Having stunned Europe by reaching the semi-finals of last year’s European Championship in France, Wales trail leaders Ireland by four points after four games in UEFA qualifying Group D.
However, whereas Ireland are blighted by injuries and suspensions, Wales are at full strength, with Real Madrid talisman Bale fit and firing following a spell on the sidelines with an ankle injury.
“We are a very good team when we’re at our best and at our strongest,” said Wales coach Chris Coleman.
“We need these players on the pitch consistently and we’re in pretty good condition. The squad might have looked different two or three months ago.
“But we’ve got players back and I’ve picked those who have been on the front foot and are most ready for this challenge.”
Wales launched their bid to reach a first World Cup since 1958 with a breezy 4-0 home win over Moldova, but they have since run into trouble.
A creditable 2-2 draw in Austria was followed by two frustrating 1-1 stalemates at home to Georgia and Serbia, Wales being pegged back after having taken the lead in both those games.
It left them third in the group, two points below second-place Serbia.
With only the top team in each group guaranteed to qualify for next year’s tournament in Russia, it means Wales desperately need to get back to winning ways at the Aviva Stadium.
Bale has already scored four goals in qualifying and needs two more to equal Ian Rush’s Welsh scoring record of 28 goals.
Coleman has also been boosted by the return to fitness of Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey following a calf strain.
The game could see 17-yearold Liverpool forward Ben Woodburn make his senior Wales debut.
Woodburn became Liverpool’s youngest ever goal-scorer in November when he scored against Leeds United in the League Cup and has previously represented Wales at youth level.
But Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has questioned the timing of his call-up and expressed reservations about Coleman’s failure to call him to speak about the player.
Woodburn is also coveted by England, but will not be eligible to play for anyone else once he has represented Wales in a competitive fixture.
Ireland coach Martin O’Neill goes into the game missing a host of first-team regulars.
Shane Duffy, Ciaran Clark, Wes Hoolahan, Harry Arter and Daryl Murphy are all injured and Robbie Brady suspended, while Everton midfielder James McCarthy is doubtful with a hamstring problem.
Ireland are due to play tribute to Derry City captain Ryan McBride, who died suddenly on Sunday at the age of 27.
West Bromwich Albion winger James McClean, a close friend of McBride, was given leave to visit his family ahead of McBride’s funeral yesterday.
McClean will wear the number five shirt in tribute to McBride during the game. AFP brought three goals in five games — his 22-goal league tally, featuring two hat-tricks, has put Belotti on the radar of Barcelona, Chelsea and Real Madrid.
He may be only one goal ahead of Roma’s Edin Dzeko, but Belotti, 23, is the only home-grown striker in Europe — including England, Spain, Germany and France — to sit top of the league scoring charts.
Not bad for a player who, having began his career in midfield, was once practically labelled mediocre by former AC Milan supremo Arrigo Sacchi.
“He’s a great example for younger players because God didn’t bless him with huge talent,” Sacchi said recently. “He has greater attributes like generosity, enthusiasm and passion.”
Adept with both feet, in the air, inside the area and out, what Belotti lacks in finesse he makes up for with bustling energy that is a menace to defenders, and with clinical finishing. AFP