Monday, 8 September 2008

Vokes stokes Welsh hopes

Wales worked hard to overcome Azerbaijan in front of a sparse 17,000 crowd at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday. The roof had been closed to protect the surface from the heavy downpours that have been such a feature of this summer, and despite some concerns aired before the game about the state of the pitch due to hosting the opening leg of Madonna's world tour the turf played well.

Yet the decision taken by the FAW to hold this game, along with the Liechtenstein and Finland fixtures, at the Cardiff venue looks particularly ill-judged. Several hundred fans queued in the rain for tickets in the hours before the game, adding considerably to the 8,000 sold in the preceding weeks, yet this still left the cavernous Stadiwm y Mileniwm merely a quarter full. The atmosphere was poor and was reduced to the drone created by the ubiquitous plastic horns flogged to SDHD (SunnyDelight-Hooked Delinquent) children.

Much more sensible would have been to take these first three home fixtures to the excellent Liberty Stadium, as Toshack himself argued back in June and Carl Fletcher has done in the aftermath of the Azerbaijan game. Saturday's crowd transferred to the home of Swansea City FC would have created a much better atmosphere for the Welsh players, possibly intimidated the Azeris and taken senior international football to a West Wales audience. Many, possibly including myself, would not have made the trip to Swansea for such a fixture but that difference would have been made up by a similar number being drawn to the Liberty Stadium from the local area and further west.

The FAW talked of having to consider what would happen in the case of Toshack's squad putting together a decent run of results and attracting far bigger crowds for the games later in the programme; all five venues needed to be decided far in advance. Fair enough, but this overlooked the fact that the first three games are against teams that are likely to attract fewer spectators and the final two games are against Germany and Russia; take them to the Millennium Stadium by all means, we'll need the full force of 72,500 voices behind Wales if we are to take anything from two of the best teams in Europe.

This was Berti Vogts's first meaningful game as Azerbaijan manager and he was hoping to add to their only victory of 2008 – a 2-1 win in Andorra. That they have recorded two draws and lost all four of their other games this year by a single goal suggested that this would be a more difficult challenge for Wales than the 4-0 thrashing handed out in 2003, or the Giggs-inspired 2-0 victory two years later. On both of these previous occasions, Wales had opened the scoring in the first few minutes of the game and the desire for a similar settling influence was clear on Saturday with this young and untried starting eleven. Simon Davies was the only survivor from the ill-fated Euro 2004 campaign and was captain for Saturday's clash.

The back five had only forty caps between them and five of the team that Toshack selected in Cardiff are members of the Under-21 squad that is so close to qualifying for the UEFA Championships playoffs. Despite this inexperience and new defensive line-up with Ashley Williams partnering Craig Morgan at centre-half, Wales started brightly and played good passing football during the first half without really troubling Agayev in the Azerbaijan goal. Wayne Hennessey, on the other hand, had to be at his best to keep out an effort that took a deflection off Williams. Wales clearly dominated to the break but in spite of the best efforts of Bale and Gunter to get forward from full-back and create, genuine chances were few and far between. It really was Bale and Koumas – who had three injections prior to the game to allow him to take the field – who provided the Welsh fans with their best hope.

The second half started slowly and the desperation of the crowd seemed to reach the players as their efforts became less and less coherent and increasingly forced. It was a Gunter surge into the box that induced a foul tackle and brought Wales their best opportunity to put clear water between them and the Azerbaijan team who by this time had decided that taking a point back to Baku would be cause for celebration. Koumas failed to convert the spot kick, however, and vented his frustration moments later when smacking the ball into the stand after being found guilty of fouling an opponent. The necessary yellow card followed and added to a peculiar booking for Bale minutes earlier, meaning that Wales's two best players from Saturday are both one booking away from suspension in this round of qualifying. A minor point, maybe, but one that might become more significant when the bigger games come around.

Soon after the penalty miss Azerbaijan were reduced to ten men when Ramim was dismissed for a second bookable offence, the referee having to be reminded by the crowd and Welsh players that the number seventeen had already received one yellow card. Toshack then made the decisive substitution that was to win the game. Sam Vokes replaced Wolves team-mate David Edwards to join fellow Under-21 striker Ched Evans up front for the final twenty minutes. Urged forward by a newly interested crowd, Wales pushed for the killer blow and put the visiting team under sustained pressure. Finally a Bale corner caused enough confusion in the Azerbaijan six-yard box for Vokes to sweep home the loose ball and give Wales the three points.

A daunting trip to Moscow follows on Wednesday where the Welsh defence can be assured of a far sterner test from the likes of Arshavin and Pavlyuchenko. The deserved three points gained from the Azerbaijan encounter should offer some confidence for the trip to the Russian captial and Welsh fans ought to be hopeful given that the average age of the finishing eleven on Saturday was a mere twenty-two. This is a Welsh squad that will only improve; whether this campaign is too much, too soon remains to be seen but the Welsh international scene over the next four to eight years looks as promising as it has in decades.

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