They were the revelation of the 2016 European Championship, a Wales team of mostly journeymen — not counting its galactico, Gareth Bale, of course — somehow reaching the semifinals in their first major soccer tournament in nearly 60 years.
The Welsh players virtually became overnight sensations. Rugby, the biggest sport in Wales, briefly took a back seat. They were ahead of archrival England in the FIFA rankings, in 11th place. Five years previously, they were 117th.
The comedown was sobering, if not entirely unexpected given the expectations foisted upon them. Five straight draws in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, including one at home against Georgia, left the Welsh concerned they would be watching the tournament on TV — just like the old days.
With no margin for error, Wales has steadied the campaign with wins over Austria and Moldova, but now comes a defining week: at Georgia on Friday and then a group-ending home match against Ireland on Monday. And the Welsh will have to cope without Bale, who will miss both qualifiers with a calf muscle strain sustained while playing for Real Madrid.
“Realistically,” Wales coach Chris Coleman has said, “we have to get maximum (points) to give ourselves a chance of second.” In Group D, Serbia leads by four points. Wales is a point ahead of third-place Ireland.
The Wales-Ireland showdown in Cardiff, therefore, is set to decide which team goes into the playoffs. It won’t be a game for the faint-hearted. At least the hangover from Euro 2016 seems to have been shaken off by the Welsh, who entered qualifying as a top-seeded team but haven’t played like one.
Early on in their group, they had to deal with raised expectations and the unusual feeling of being favorites. Opponents sat deep and frustrated Wales, which has relied on its strength on the counterattack.
Bale remains the team’s inspiration, yet despite being its top scorer in qualifying with four goals, he hasn’t reached the heights of Euro 2016 qualifying when he netted seven of Wales’ 11 goals. Behind Bale, Aaron Ramsey is the team’s most renowned player, and the Arsenal midfielder’s absence through injury for the first three qualifiers proved costly in the draws against Austria and Georgia.
In some ways, Ashley Williams was as important as Bale in Euro 2016 qualifying, a tower of strength at center back, but he hasn’t been as commanding in this campaign and has started the domestic season poorly with Everton.
Indeed, the biggest interventions in those crucial wins over Austria and Moldova last month were made by a 17-year-old forward, Ben Woodburn. The Liverpool winger scored the winner against Austria with one of his first touches after going on as a substitute, then set up the opening goal in the 2-0 win over Moldova — again soon after entering from the bench — scored by Hal Robson-Kanu.
Coleman said after losing to Portugal in the Euro 2016 semifinals that Wales had broken through a psychological barrier by advancing so far at a major tournament. The team will fall back on that experience over the next few days.