WALES SEEK LIFT-OFF

Cole­man’s side out to put their World Cup cam­paign back on track against Ire­land

New Straits Times - - Sport -

LON­DON

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

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