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Wales supporters might still be basking in the glow of their team’s astonishing achievement of reaching the European Championships semi-finals last year, but hard-nosed bookmakers are having none of the romanticism of those halcyon days in France.
There is little respect in the price chalked up by Grosvenor Sport about Chris Coleman’s side beating Ireland at the Aviva Stadium, with Wales outsiders at 47/20, their hosts 27/20 favourites and the draw 21/10.
It’s only the second time the market makers haven’t made Wales’ jollies in a competitive match since that balmy night in Lyon and the 2-0 loss to Portugal, but it’s not without reason. Gone, it seems, is the edge that saw them claim several unlikely victories last season, with full-back Neil Taylor revealing that teams don’t “come out and attack as much” as they used to. A new-found respect from opponents has left punters opposing, rather than backing, Wales.
That, perhaps, explains a run of three draws and just one win – against lowly ranked Moldova – in their qualifying games to date, with a 3-2 friendly loss at home to the Netherlands their only other result since last July.
Despite being unbeaten in competitive games this term, their stock has fallen so much that the layers make the top seeded country in Group D just 5/2 to win the section and 9/10 for a top two finish. Remember, only the group winners are certain to head to the World Cup finals, with the eight best second placed nations scheduled to play-off to produce four more qualifiers.
And although Wales are still relatively short in the betting to make the plane to Russia, it’s worth pointing out that they are only third favourites to go through as group winners, behind current table toppers Ireland (7/4) and second placed Serbia (2/1).
Wales, looking to qualify for the World Cup finals for the first time since 1958, are 200/1 to lift the trophy in Moscow in July 2018, with Ireland, whose last appearance was back in 2002, even bigger at 250/1.
The Irish are unbeaten in six against the Welsh, a run that stretches back to 1992, when Mark Pembridge’s second half winner was enough to earn Wales a Dublin friendly success between the two nations. Since then, Ireland have won three (all at home) and drawn three (all away).
What tempers a punt on Martin O’Neill’s side is their chronic injury list. Wes Hoolahan, Shane Duffy, Ciaran Clark, Daryl Murphy and Harry Arter are all crocked, while James McCarthy, who missed Everton’s win over Hull City at the weekend, is struggling with a hamstring issue. Furthermore, Robbie Brady is suspended. Four of those players started in Ireland’s impressive 1-0 win away against Austria in their last qualifier.
James McClean scored the winner in Vienna and, if employed as a striker (as he was that night), he looks a fair bet at 9/1 to grab the first goal – more cautious investors can back him to net at anytime at 21/5. The West Bromwich Albion winger-cum-striker was one of the Baggies’ stars in their Saturday win over Arsenal and registered two goals in Ireland’s previous group match – a 3-1 away success in Moldova.
However, I can’t help thinking the home side’s absentees, not to mention their position at the top of the table – two points clear of Serbia – makes them likely to take a more guarded approach to this fixture.
Wales can call upon a full-strength squad and, having been forced to play 4-4-2 against Serbia in their 1-1 draw in Cardiff last autumn, will surely revert to the 3-5-2 shape that served them so well in France. Gareth Bale (41/10 to score first and 37/20 anytime scorer) has scored in 10 of his last 17 internationals, including the opener in his last two, and will play alongside Sam Vokes (7/1 and 100/30), with Aaron Ramsey (19/2 and 9/2) just in behind. Ireland will hope to give those three players little opportunity to show their quality, in a game that might turn into a tactical battle. Both teams look to counter and they could easily nullify each other.
A draw looks the most solid pick in the win-draw-win match market, with correct punters urged to split their stakes on 0-0 (at 6/1) and 1-1 (11/2). Ten of Ireland’s last 13 home games have featured less than 2.5 goals – available here at 5/9 – and that must be backed, with both teams to score ‘no’, at 77/100, another viable option for punters in a game that might have fans of both nations wishing for the golden days of last summer.