The Long wait, Welsh World Cup woe and more big match talking points

Can Ireland keep their bid to qualify for the 2018 World Cup on track tonight in Cardiff?

IRELAND MUST OVERCOME Wales tonight in Cardiff (7.45pm) in their final Group D qualifier to keep their hopes of securing a place at next summer’s tournament in Russia alive.

Bale out

Gareth Bale An injury is set to rule Wales star Gareth Bale out of tonight's World Cup qualifier against Cardiff. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Ireland fans will probably breathe a sigh of relief if Gareth Bale isn’t on the pitch come kick-off, although it does seem highly unlikely that the Real Madrid star will feature.

The 28-year-old attacker went back to Madrid last week to continue his rehabilitation from the calf injury which saw him miss his country’s 1-0 win in Georgia on Friday. He returned to the Welsh camp over the weekend despite seemingly being unfit to play.

Will his absence be a decisive factor in tonight’s game? The statistics suggest that it’s a strong possibility. Wales’ win percentage almost halves without their talisman in the team.

They’ve won 33 of their 68 games — 48.5% — that Bale has played in since making his senior international debut as a 16-year-old back in 2006. Without the former Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur player, that drops to 26.5% — nine wins from 34 games.

Young Derby County striker Tom Lawrence stepped up to the plate to fill the void by scoring a stunning winner in Georgia, but there’s no denying that Chris Coleman’s side are a much less daunting prospect minus the world’s former most expensive player.

Bad blood

Seamus Coleman is tackled by Neil Taylor Seamus Coleman suffered a broken leg following this tackle from Neil Taylor in March. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

It was a feisty contest when the teams played out a goalless draw at the Aviva Stadium back in March, which unfortunately had serious consequences for Seamus Coleman.

The Ireland captain was stretchered off in the second half when a reckless challenge from Wales full-back Neil Taylor left the Everton defender with a broken leg, which he’s still recovering from.

Moments earlier, Gareth Bale was also somewhat fortunate to avoid a red card for a late tackle on John O’Shea, while David Meyler was booked for a foul on Aaron Ramsey, who also picked up a yellow card for raising his leg to Glenn Whelan, which left the Ireland midfielder with a cut on his forehead.

Whelan and Shane Long were also fortunate to avoid having their names taken by referee Nicola Rizzoli for hefty first-half challenges on Joe Allen and Ashley Williams respectively.

Wales boss Chris Coleman remarked afterwards that ”your boys aren’t coming off with halos on their heads” when asked for his thoughts on the tackles made by Taylor and Bale.

With so much at stake in a game between two sets of players who are familiar with one another, we could be in for a similarly heated affair tonight at the Cardiff City Stadium.

Cool heads will be required from both teams if they’re to remain disciplined in the hope of keeping 11 players on the field at all times. If Slovenian referee Damir Skomina reaches for red, it could tip the balance of this tie.

The Long wait

Shane Long reacts to a missed chance Shane Long expresses his frustration during Friday's game against Moldova. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Having missed Friday’s 2-0 win against Moldova in Dublin due to suspension, James McClean and Robbie Brady will come back into contention for tonight’s game and both players are likely to start.

Despite giving a good account of himself against the Moldovans, Callum O’Dowda will probably make way. Given his current goal drought, Shane Long may also have concerns about his place.

Long has now failed to score in his last 24 games for club and country. He had chances to rectify that at the Aviva Stadium on Friday, when he understandably looked like a player suffering from a crisis of confidence.

Nevertheless, the Southampton striker has never let his country down when it comes to endeavour and his attributes, particularly his experience at Premier League level, could be exactly what Ireland need in a game like this.

Having said that, if it’s a duel for selection between Long and Daryl Murphy based on form, it’ll be an easy decision for manager Martin O’Neill. The main reservation when it comes to Murphy is that the 34-year-old may not be up to starting another game just three days after playing 71 minutes.

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Murphy, who scored his first senior international goal in Ireland’s opening qualifier away to Serbia, notched both goals against Moldova and has hit the net six times already this season in the Championship for Nottingham Forest.

Welsh World Cup woe

PA-77740 Paul Bodin hits a penalty kick off the crossbar for Wales against Romania in November 1993. Source: Neal Simpson/EMPICS Sport

While there’s obviously pressure on both sets of players to succeed in a game of this magnitude, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that it may be weighing more heavily on Wales.

Ireland haven’t been to a World Cup since 2002, but it’s been a 60-year wait for tonight’s opponents. Irish fans have travelled to Cardiff in hope. The Welsh will watch tonight’s game in expectation.

Having reached the semi-finals of last year’s European Championship in France, and considering the length of their absence from the World Cup, Wales supporters wouldn’t take kindly to having their dreams dashed by a middle-of-the-road side like Ireland.

The closest they came to qualifying for their first World Cup since 1958 was in November 1993, when Paul Bodin missed a second-half penalty against Romania in Cardiff when the game was tied at 1-1. A win would have sent them through, but Florin Raducioiu scored a late winner for a Romanian side who went on to reach the quarter-finals at USA ’94.

“It has become something that has almost defined the last 22 years of my life with people coming up to me to ask about it,” Bodin told Wales Online in 2015. “I have had to live with that hurt and it never quite goes away.”

That’s how much World Cup qualification means to Wales. In front of their own fans, will they be shackled by history and the desire of their supporters to finally spend a summer in the company of the best sides in the world?

We’ll find out from 7.45pm this evening.

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Paul Dollery

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