Sunday 17 December 2017

'He is a freak of nature' - Gareth Bale's on course to meet Ireland

Gareth Bale and (inset) Martin O'Neill
Gareth Bale and (inset) Martin O'Neill

Colin Young

Seven games. That is 630 minutes for Gareth Bale to turn the small but significant steps back into action made in the Bernabeu last night into a journey to be the fully-fit fulcrum for Wales in next month's World Cup qualifier in Dublin.

Bale's return from ankle surgery, which has kept him sidelined for three months, is a World Cup game-changer. There is every chance this supremely talented footballer could be in full flow when his country faces Ireland on March 24.

Wales cannot function without him. Bale has had a hand in 13 of their last 14 goals on home soil and was the dominant force in their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, scoring seven goals, including the winner against Andorra which sealed their first finals appearances in 57 years. He also contributed with two assists which means only two Welsh goals had no Bale involvement in the last campaign.

Bale, now 27, is just two goals shy of becoming his country's all-time highest goalscorer, a record currently held by former Liverpool striker Ian Rush, who has 28 goals. There has never been a Welsh player like him.

Former Wales international Dean Saunders, also an assistant under previous manager John Toshack, says current coach Chris Coleman will be desperate for Bale to come through the next month unscathed.

"Without Gareth we would struggle," he says. "Nearly 90 per cent of our goals come through him, so that tells you everything. Chris put the formula in place for Gareth to have the free role Andre Villas-Boas gave him all those years ago at Tottenham, and it does not change that much. Everyone knows the system. He has a solid back five, a good midfield from the likes of (Aaron) Ramsey, (Joe) Allen, (Joe) Ledley, (David) Edwards and (Andy) King. The striker might change, whether it is a runner or a hold-up man, and it works because Gareth has that free role.

"He is a freak of nature. We know we will have long periods when we have to defend and won't have the ball, but the icing on the cake is Gareth who, along with Ronaldo and Messi, is a player you do not want running at you with the ball. He can do anything and score any type of goal.

"If you sat the Welsh players down and asked them, 'How do you think we have been getting results?', they would say, 'We all work our socks off, eventually we get the ball to Gareth, and he will win us games'. On top of that, he is a good lad and the perfect ambassador for Wales. It is vital he is fit."

Bale's club boss Zinedine Zidane has been content to delay the midfielder's starting return to the Real Madrid side - though he scored after coming on as at 71st-minute substitute in the Merengues' 2-0 La Liga win over Espanyol yesterday - victory over , conscious no doubt that the European champions and La Liga leaders have plenty of pending minutes to assist in Bale's attempts to reach peak match-fitness.

One of the consequences of the continental winter break which extends to Spain is that, while their Premier League-based counterparts are run ragged over the Christmas and New Year period, they have a packed spring programme now.

They play seven more games before the next World Cup qualifiers. Real have three midweek fixtures, including the second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie in Napoli. They lead 3-1 from Wednesday's first leg and that cushion offers Zidane the opportunity to start Bale in the return in the San Paolo Stadium next month.

Wales were close to fielding their strongest team when they faced Serbia in Cardiff in November and Tottenham defender Ben Davies was the only significant absentee from the starting XI, which made their 1-1 draw all the more surprising.

Aleksandar Mitrovic's late equaliser was another blow in their attempt to reach their first World Cup since they reached the quarter-finals in Sweden in 1958. It was their third straight draw in Group D, leaving them in third place and four points behind leaders Ireland - and two short of second-placed Serbia after four games. Like the opponents above, they are unbeaten and have eight goals, of which Bale has scored four.

Aaron Ramsey has missed most of this campaign too and his absence from the Arsenal side for the last six weeks has coincided with the accusation that Arsene Wenger's side have lacked fight. Coleman will be as keen as Wenger to see Ramsey back.

Like Joe Allen, Ramsey is a significant cog in the Welsh machine and it is their unselfish runs and astute passing around Bale's attacking tenacity which allow Coleman to unleash his talisman and release him in his favoured number 10 role. Unlike Allen, Ramsey has few Premier League minutes to show for the last three months.

"When you don't have the players every day, you have to go out and watch them - and Chris, Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane will be out and about watching players, and you notice when they come back to you if they are not sharp and in the first team regularly," says Saunders.

"You don't go to watch Jon Walters to see how good he is. You go to see if he is fit. And I know they are fit because they are top Premier League players, but are they mentally fit? So often you end up picking players who are fit and playing regularly, not necessarily what you would perceive to be your best 11. The manager might pick a player who is playing, rather than one who should be playing. If you are not starting every week you lose that intensity in the mind and in international football you need to be switched on, because you need to make the right decisions on the night - particularly in a game like this.

"When you are not playing you are not under pressure and you don't have those pre-match instructions thrown at you. If you are on the bench you can't be focused and switched-on 100 per cent and, if that goes on for a while, you do lose your edge."

Aside from Ashley Williams, who has slowly forged an understanding with centre-back Ramiro Funes Mori at Everton, the only outfield Welshman starting regularly in the Premier League is Allen.

Outstanding in France last summer, weeks later he completed a £9m transfer to Stoke City from Liverpool. The former Wales manager Mark Hughes has found room for Allen in his hard-working midfield, and the 26-year-old has taken to having the trust of his manager again. He scored just four goals in as many years at Anfield but managed that amount in a Stoke shirt before the start of the year. He also scored in the 4-0 qualifying win over Moldova in September and the 2-2 draw in Austria a month later.

As with the prospective Irish squad, there is hardly a stockpile of goals among the Welsh frontline otherwise. And like Shane Long and Walters, Coleman's first-choice strikers have not stacked up the playing time since the turn of the year.

Sam Vokes of Burnley and West Brom's Hal Robson-Kanu both started against Serbia but have spent the majority of their time since on the bench at their respective clubs. Not that the lack of goals or playing time will be an over-riding concern to Coleman. Welsh and Irish players have always been able to produce performances above and beyond their club reputations in this fixture. Next month's crucial clash will be no different.

Both squads have players who are accruing valuable minutes in the Championship, particularly and not surprisingly in the defensive positions - where Reading's Chris Gunter, James Chester of Aston Villa and Newcastle left-back Paul Dummett have rarely missed a game. The same can be said of the Ireland defenders Ciaran Clark, Richard Keogh and Shane Duffy, who are virtually ever-presents since the win in Vienna.

The stats slightly favour Ireland in the goalkeeping department, although it has not been a particularly positive period for the first-choice keepers Wayne Hennessey and Darren Randolph. Crystal Palace's fall into the bottom three has coincided with Hennessey keeping just one clean sheet, and conceding more than two goals a game. Randolph, on the receiving end of two drubbings from Manchester City and one from Arsenal which accumulated 14 goals against, has fared little better.

Although Martin O'Neill is unlikely to consider a change of keeper at this stage of the campaign, the form and consistency of Keiren Westwood at Sheffield Wednesday should not be overlooked. Keeper of last season in the PFA vote among the Championship players, Westwood has kept eight clean sheets in 15 league matches and has conceded just 10 goals as Carlos Carvalhal's side mount a serious challenge for promotion to the Premier League.

The bigger concern for O'Neill is at the other end of the pitch. He will be ­satisfied that Harry Arter and Jeff Hendrick are starting regularly, until Hendrick's ­dismissal against Watford a fortnight ago, and his subsequent three-match ban.

Where there should be goals and ­creativity, particularly among his top-flight recruits, there is inactivity. James McClean has not started a Premier League game since his winning goal against ­Austria took Ireland to the top of the group. Long, ­missing that night, has made just four league starts. With Charlie ­Austin ­sidelined for several months, Long ­appeared to be set for a return to the side. He scored the EFL Cup semi-final ­winner at Liverpool and wore the captain's ­armband in the FA Cup defeat to Arsenal.

But then Claude Puel landed record signing Manolo Gabbiadini from Napoli. The energetic Italian, a £15m transfer-deadline buy, has scored three goals in his first two games. It has left Long benched, although he did score late on when he replaced Gabbiadini at Sunderland last week, and could easily have had a hat-trick.

Such inactivity is a blow for Ireland and O'Neill but that is nothing new for an Ireland or a Wales manager, and it will not diminish Long's role in Dublin next month.

"It is sad for British and Irish football," says Saunders. "Don't get me wrong, Gabbiadini looks the part, but Long should be in the starting line-up, certainly from Ireland's point of view."

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