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View from Wales: 'People will be wary of Shane Long'
Welsh football journalist Chris Wathan gives an insight into Ireland’s Group D rivals ahead of Friday’s match.

WHAT WALES ACHIEVED at the Euros in the summer was both unprecedented and spectacular.

For a country with a population of roughly three million people, in which rugby is generally regarded as the primary sport, to reach the semi-finals of a major tournament is unheard of.

Croatia, with its population of around four million, getting to the semi-finals of the 1998 World Cup is one of the few comparable achievements in modern international football.

Since then, however, the team have not exactly gone from strength to strength. While all the key members of their Euros squad remain available, there has been a sense that Wales are suffering somewhat of a hangover from the summer.

They currently sit third in World Cup qualifying Group D, four points off leaders Ireland and two behind Serbia in second.

While Chris Coleman’s side remain unbeaten, in four matches, a 4-0 defeat of Moldova, generally regarded as the worst team in the group, is their only victory so far.

An inability to see games out has been a big issue for Wales. They have not once found themselves trailing against rival opposition, but were unable to retain leads in matches with Austria, Georgia and Serbia.

Yet despite these setbacks, the Dragons have retained a sense of optimism ahead of Friday’s crucial World Cup qualifier at the Aviva Stadium, according to Chris Wathan, Chief Football Writer at Media Wales and author of Together Stronger: The Rise of Welsh Football’s Golden Generation.

“I wouldn’t say ‘quietly confident’ or anything like that because that sounds like we’re not taking it seriously,” he tells The42. “They’re a side that are just brimming with self-belief and have been for some time. That was obviously evident in the Euros.

There is a sense outside the camp that if this game isn’t must-win, it’s approaching it. It’s difficult to know what the true feelings of the people in the camp are on that — Coleman said that that’s not in his consideration. They’re going to set out to play as they can, hit the (optimum) performance levels, and the rest will take care of itself.”

He continues: “It’s been the sort of mantra right the way through. If they get themselves right, give their better players a chance to play, then what will be will be.

In this campaign, it’s been sloppy in some of the games but as much as it was disappointing for them to draw (in their most recent game) against Serbia with the late goal, the performance level was back to what we’d come to expect with Wales. They’ll be looking to take that on and I’m guessing if they want to have any more confidence, they’ll be looking at the list of injuries Ireland have got and thinking that’s not Ireland at their very strongest.”

Wales drawing their third group game at home to Georgia, in particular, was seen as a disappointment, even though the latter are an improving side who beat Scotland in their last campaign and were lucky not to emerge with at least a point when they came to the Aviva Stadium back in October.

“Whether there was a sense of nerves around the stadium, the rise in expectations, it’s difficult to say. A result like (the Georgia draw) isn’t out of kilter with Welsh football history. Expectation levels have gone up and understandably so.

A little bit of hunger was missing, a little bit of desperation that we saw in the last campaign where it was almost if, if they don’t qualify for that tournament, they were never going to qualify. Certainly on this team upon which so much hope had been placed, having been so close this summer (at the Euros), it’s still in their system a little bit.

“But if the last campaign didn’t happen and we were four points off the top, two points off a playoff place and yet to be beaten, which is somewhat forgotten about, it would be hailed as the best campaign in years and everyone would be excited. But when you reach a semi-finals in the manner that we did it, people naturally have a taste of success and start to get used to it.”

2016 Christmas Sport Package Martin Rickett With four goals in four games in the campaign so far, Gareth Bale has been a key figure for Wales. Martin Rickett

One of the interesting aspects of Friday’s game is how much the mood has changed since last November. Back then, Ireland had just won impressively away in Austria, while Real Madrid superstar Gareth Bale was set to undergo ankle surgery and appeared to be a potential doubt for the game at the Aviva.

Yet by contrast, now Bale’s fitness is no longer in doubt, while Ireland have as many as 10 players unavailable through suspension or injury, with others doubtful.

Before, there was a belief that Wales were there for the taking, whereas under the current circumstances, many Irish supporters feel a draw would represent a decent result for the hosts.

Coleman, as it stands, has every member of his starting XI to choose from. Only squad players such as Simon Church, Jonny Williams, Emyr Huws and Tom Lawrence are injured, though their absence has paved the way for promising Liverpool youngsters Ben Woodburn and Harry Wilson to be included in the travelling party.

There’s a lot of excitement about Woodburn and whether he would be an option from the bench to add something a bit different. Time will tell,” Wathan adds.

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And while a significant portion of the pre-match build-up has focused on Bale and his availability, Wales didn’t get to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 by being a one-man team. Indeed, their spine of Wayne Hennessey, Ashley Williams, Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey and Bale would be the envy of many international sides across the world.

Like Ireland, though, it is their collective strength that ultimately elevates Wales to another level.

The difference with Bale and a lot of players of that ilk is his work rate is absolutely phenomenal. It sounds a cliché, but he is one of the boys.

“I’ve written about this quite a bit — this side have grown up together. They were all of a very similar age coming through in their youth teams. Whenever they meet up, they’re meeting back up as friends. They’ve been part of this set-up for nigh-on 10 years.

Chris Gunther is 27 and he should win his 78th cap on Friday, which is quite stunning and Bale’s a big part of that. He’s very much himself and he’s relaxed around the camp. When it gets to the game, he’s willing to do as much, if not more (than his teammates). He understands his status and his own ability — he’s comfortable with the pressure of delivering.”

There is certainly a healthy level of respect between the two sides, as evidenced by Coleman’s recent comments in relation to Martin O’Neill, and Wathan believes the game’s outcome is “too tight to call”.

“It was interesting at the Euros — we saw Ireland in the knockout stages, Wales themselves, or teams of that similar mould where the team spirit outweighs the resources in terms of players. So we do recognise a bit of ourselves in Ireland.

In terms of individuals, I’d imagine Shane Long’s record (17 goals at international level) and the type of striker he is will, not cause concern, but people will be wary of looking out for him.

“He’s such a sniffer and he doesn’t need much of a chance to make the most of defensive mistakes. If you’re going to single one out, perhaps he would be there. Obviously some of the players that are injured might have caused some concern as well. But the focus for Wales has been for some time (primarily) on themselves.”

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