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There’s no time for slow starts or warming into the season at international level. This week, lifelong dreams and ambitions are on the line, as crucial World Cup qualifiers kick back into gear.
Who will make it to Russia 2018?
Wales and Republic of Ireland are both vying for glory in Group D, so we asked football expert Adrian Clarke to look ahead to the challenges they could face on Saturday evening…
Wales v Austria
(September 2 – 19:45 KO)
It’s crunch time for ‘Cookie’ Coleman.
The Wales boss knows his side need two wins from two this week to ensure their dreams of competing at the next World Cup don’t become a fantasy.
I have faith the 47-year-old is astute enough to pull it off. In big pressure games during his reign, the Welsh have almost always risen to the occasion.
They kick off a pivotal double-header with a crossroads clash against Austria in Cardiff (before heading to Moldova) and the loser is almost certain to miss out on the tournament in Russia.
Four points adrift of Serbia and Republic of Ireland, a draw isn’t of great to use to either country either, so both nations will be going all out for the win.
Frustratingly, Wales know all about stalemates.
Since losing to Portugal in the Euro ’16 semi-final, the Dragons have remained unbeaten, but they have drawn their last FIVE internationals.
While I’d suggest one point hauls away to Austria, Republic of Ireland and Serbia were very positive results, those efforts will count for little if Coleman’s men don’t make the most of their easier run-in.
The Welsh are at a win or bust stage.
Fortunately, they have Gareth Bale fit and raring to go. Their talisman is enduring a tough spell at Real Madrid right now, but is likely to welcome the chance to remind everybody what a superstar he is.
Bale carried Wales to the Euros, and for his country to stand any chance of making it to Russia he must repeat those glory nights all over again.
While any opponent containing the excellent David Alaba, and maverick Marko Arnautovic, has to be taken seriously, it’s the Bale factor that I expect to decide this critical contest.
Providing Coleman can formulate a strategy that gets his star man on the ball frequently, I just can’t see Wales failing to out score the visitors.
With victory on both teams’ minds, this should be an exciting match, and I’m backing Wales to (finally) remember that winning feeling.
Wales to win 6/5
Over 1.5 Wales Goals 6/4
Wales 2 Austria 1 17/2
Georgia v Republic of Ireland
(September 2, 17:00 KO)
There are certain aspects of international football that are pretty much set in stone. Early England exits from major tournaments, the Germans going through on penalties, the French having some kind of in-house fisticuffs – oh, and the Republic of Ireland beating Georgia.
These two nations have met eight times in the last 14 years – meaning they are regular adversaries – and each and every time the Irish have come out on top with a win.
This is a country that’s got the better of Wales and Scotland in the not-so-distant past, so it’s not as if they are not capable. While many of their encounters have been seriously close, it’s the Irish appear to be Georgian Kryptonite.
That should make them bankers to take all three points in Tblisi this weekend, but I have my doubts because Martin O’Neill’s side looks light on goal power.
Shane Long, Jonathan Walters, Daryl Murphy and David McGoldrick are decent enough front men, but the youngest of them is 29 now, and between them they have plundered 32 goals in a combined 152 appearances for their country.
To compete at major tournaments O’Neill needs to unearth a young striker that delivers far higher ratios than that.
On their three previous visits to Georgia the result has always ended 1-2 in Ireland’s favour, but something tells me they will struggle to bag two goals this time.
I realise it makes me a dreadfully dull person, but I can’t look past the 0-0 draw.
0-0 – 7/1
Draw/Draw – 15/4