Wales’ historic Euro 2016 campaign has fans expecting much more, but the visit of Serbia reminds them of the frailness of Chris Coleman’s squad
11 November ~ Back in the autumn of 2012, in a corner of FK Vojvodina’s Karadorde Stadium, I stood, and for the only time in my life, booed my national team. They were traipsing from the field having been comprehensively beaten 6-1 by Serbia – another qualifying attempt over before it had really begun.
No one in Novi Sad that night could have predicted that four years on, many of those Welsh players would feature in the semi-final of a major tournament. Nor that Chris Coleman – holed up in the changing rooms, not wanting to face reporters’ questions until the jeering Wales fans had left the stadium – would be the man to lead them there.
Wales’ trajectory through Euro 2016 to that historic semi-final offered an effective snapshot of what many supporters have long known about Wales as a football nation. Though this squad may collectively be stronger than at any other point in our lifetimes, its potency can still be dramatically curtailed by the absence of just one or two players.
What came to pass against Portugal in Lyon was further reinforced in October’s internationals. Without the combined calmness and creativity of Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey in midfield, Wales failed to hang on to the reins against Georgia, and could count themselves lucky it was only two points and not three, which slipped from their grasp.
The return of both Allen and Ramsey, and Jonny Williams, will carry supporters into Saturday’s match against group leaders Serbia with less sense of foreboding, but Wales are still not full strength.
The absence of not only Ben Davies, but also his most likely replacement James Collins, shouldn’t be downplayed. While Gareth Bale’s goals took the headlines in Euro 2016 qualification, a defence that conceded only four goals was as crucial a factor. Already this campaign Wales have been breached three times – and but for wayward Georgian finishing it could’ve been more.
In a wide-open qualifying group winning home games is crucial; Coleman circa 2016 may exude confidence, but having to play arguably the toughest of those home fixtures with an unfamiliar defence must cause some concern.
While Serbia, and indeed covering for injuries, offer familiar tests for Wales, one thing they haven’t faced before is a weight of expectation. Experience tells us that to be unbeaten after three qualifiers is a decent return, but this is Wales’ difficult follow-up campaign.
After the disappointing draw with Georgia the odd boo could be heard around the Cardiff City Stadium, and though it was a far cry from the cacophony of dissent that night in Novi Sad, it’s a reminder that Wales have now shifted their own goalposts. If this squad is to keep up with its own pace of progression, games like this must be won. Glen Wilson