Monday 11 December 2017

Vincent Hogan: Fit Gareth Bale to complicate matters in crucial test for Martin O'Neill

Real Madrid's Gareth Bale. Photo: Sergio Perez/Reuters
Real Madrid's Gareth Bale. Photo: Sergio Perez/Reuters
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

On the fringe of last summer's Euros, Gareth Bale likened the Wales soccer team to Leicester City in how they were, as he put it, "so together".

It was a pointed observation from the pivotal personality in a group broadly assumed within the game to be football's equivalent of a hard-working repertory company committed to service of a superstar.

Bale had been the key figure in Wales' first qualification for a major tournament since 1958, scoring seven of his country's rather modest return of 11 goals from 10 games.

The bulk of Chris Coleman's squad was made up of Championship players and Premier League squad fillers. Bale was their golden ticket.

The belief was that if he caught fire in France, they might just carry a threat.

If not, their capacity to do something memorable would be negligible.

Maybe Jonny Owen had committed to charting their summer journey no matter what the Wales story at Euro 2016 became, but it's fair to say his film, 'Don't Take Me Home', which hit cinemas last Friday, ended up with far more evocative material than even he could have ever anticipated.

Against all odds, Wales became the story of those Finals, reaching the last four and expressing themselves with a unity that reached almost mystical status when the team huddle at the end of their quarter-final eviction of Belgium momentarily took on the shape of a heart.

Bale, granted a preview screening of Owen's film, described it as "amazing". He said he saw it as an underdog story and, well, "everybody loves an underdog".

That tag has now been lost to Wales and if successive home draws against Georgia and Serbia haven't exactly electrified their World Cup qualifying bid, they know that a victory in Dublin 18 days from now will dramatically boost their hopes of making it to Russia.

And news of Bale's recent return to fitness after almost three months out with an ankle injury won't exactly have been music to the ears of Martin O'Neill.

Ireland's surprisingly commanding position at the top of Group D, with three away games already played, suggests a home victory on March 24 will not alone advance O'Neill's mission significantly, but also push Wales seven points adrift of Ireland and, effectively, rule them out of automatic qualification.

Bale is the complicating factor.

He has accounted for exactly half of Wales' eight goals in their four World Cup qualifiers to date - a stat that tallies almost perfectly with his overall return of 14 of the 29 goals they have scored in their last 20 competitive internationals.

That's an extraordinary weight of influence, comparable to that of his Real Madrid team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo with Portugal, Zlatan Ibrahimovic with Sweden or Robert Lewandowski with Poland. Take any of those superstars out of their national side and the personality of those left behind all but convulses.

Powerful

Bale's stated preference is to attack from the right, cutting inside for an opportunity to unleash that viciously powerful left foot.

As such, we can surely take it that O'Neill won't simply play an orthodox left-back, but a defensive-minded, left-sided midfielder as well, with both players mentally and physically equipped to sacrifice their own game for the greater good.

Wales will come here on a mission, with Bale utterly central to it.

At last month's London premiere for 'Don't Take Me Home', Coleman emphasised the need for his players to avoid basking in too much self-satisfaction over an adventure that ended seven months ago.

"We need to enjoy it and always remember it, but not live in it," he said.

"It's always about the next challenge and we've got to get to Russia. It's all about getting there and trying to do this again."

Thus the showdown in Dublin will have a potentially sobering status in the minds of the manager and his squad.

For Bale, though, as is the way with the great players, it will loom as another opportunity to make himself the difference, to resolve business by simply being attuned to a higher wavelength.

We needn't doubt he will have the support of a profoundly committed team.

"We're really good friends, it's like playing for your local team really," he said around the time of the Euros.

Back then, of course, he believed Wales to be the Leicester City of international football.

The hope for now might have to be that, on March 24, they prove faithful to that comparison.

Irish Independent

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