Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Tasty Stock but lack of key ingredients hands it to Russia on a plate

Given the reputation that he has built up at Arsenal and in the under 21s, being mistaken for Aaron Ramsey is one of the highest accolades in Welsh football at the moment. That Brian Stock played for 25 minutes before I realised that he was, in fact, Brian Stock of Doncaster Rovers and not Aaron Ramsey, shows how well he played against Russia tonight. (It also shows that I need my glasses back from the optician more urgently than I thought.)

Stock was outstanding in an opening half an hour that saw Wales dominate one of the best teams in Europe. With Ricketts pushing forward down the right and Ramsey supporting the returning Craig Bellamy up front, Wales created more chances in 30 minutes than in the 180 minutes of home qualifiers against Finland and Germany.

And yet. One moment of brilliance from Ramsey's Arsenal team-mate Andrei Arshavin ten minutes before the break brought Toshack's side down to earth. He picked out Igor Semshov's intelligent run, who went on to shoot past Wayne Hennessey into the far corner. The goal flattered Russia who had not seriously threatened the Welsh goal until that point.

Wales were slow to start after the break and I started to fear the worst. But my faith in the future of Welsh football was reinforced when James Collins met Ramsey's corner at the near post and flicked it past Akinfeev. For ten minutes Wales pushed on, encouraged by Collins's second international goal and by the 14,000 crowd who finally had something to sing about.

Having again failed to convert pressure into goals, Wales succumbed once more. Gabbidon gave away a soft free-kick on the edge of the penalty area that Ignashevich drilled past Hennessey, who was misplaced standing behind the wall. Wales never reached the same level of performance in the second half as they had reached in the first and it seemed that the only team to score again would be Russia.

And so it was. Substitute Roman Pavlyuchenko had smashed a shot against the crossbar before taking advantage of a Collins mistake and firing a fine finish across Hennessey.

Wales were unable to capitalise on their good build-up play; nor did they have a Pavlyuchenko to make a goal out of nothing. Currently they are missing a striker who threatens to score each time he plays. Bellamy looked lively and made some good runs down the flanks but never looked like scoring. As I pointed out on Monday, Ched Evans was the only striker in the squad to have scored this season. He watched the whole game from the bench.

Wales lacked ambition when it was needed most. They clearly started the better and after ten minutes should have really grabbed the opportunity that was there to take the lead. After the equaliser Wales didn't capitalise on their momentum, although they weren't helped by some strange refereeing decisions.

Further, Toshack should have made a change at half-time rather than waiting for Wales to go 2-1 down before introducing Sam Vokes. If he'd backed them and their first-half performance, which included the best half hour I've seen Wales play for at least six years, then a half-time change would have taken the game to Russia and given his players the belief that they could go and win. As it was, it didn't look like Wales ever believed that they could win - neither during their opening spell nor at 1-1.

The game also clearly lacked atmosphere due to the Millennium Stadium being only one-fifth full. The FA of Wales's meeting next week to discuss taking the qualifiers to smaller stadia around the country cannot come too soon. It might be that the hotter atmosphere generated by a crowd of that size in the Liberty Stadium or even the Racecourse would have pushed Wales into the lead.

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