The international year ahead

In another guest blog Buzz Boncath (known as Gareth to his mam) looks ahead to Wales’s 2019 international calendar, which includes the entire Euro 2020 qualifying campaign, and considers the potential permutations that might see Wales qualify for a second successive European Championship.

When we talk about the football season, we are normally referring to the period between August and May, unless there’s a World Cup or a European Championships. Whilst that’s still true in the club game, international football in Europe is now more closely aligned to the calendar year, at least for the senior men’s game.

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Now that spring is on the way, and we’re champing at the bit for an away trip, we find ourselves again at a fresh start and a new beginning. No, I’m not talking about Brexit – we have a new qualifying campaign to look forward to; one that, for the first time, will be completed within a single year.

That new international year will kick off in a grand old way with Wales’s return to Wrexham’s Racecourse. The senior team’s return to that famous ground will reinforce its claim to be the oldest ground still in use for international football, as we play a friendly against Trinidad and Tobago there on Wednesday 20h March, 142 years to the month after Wales played our first home international there against Scotland in March 1877. Playing in Wrexham is also a gesture to the members of the Red Wall who live in the north, meaning easier journeys to and from the game for once, rather than hours spent on the world’s longest road*, the A470.

It will be only the second time Wales has played Trinidad and Tobago having first played them in a 2006 World Cup warm-up match in Graz. A game in which Arron Davies, Jason Brown, Glyn Garner and Gareth Bale made their international bows; whatever happened to all of them?

I’m pleased that we’ve arranged a spring friendly because on the evidence of last autumn’s games, whilst we have seen something of the style Ryan Giggs wants us to play, he has not, as far as I can see, settled on a favoured formation or preferred starting XI. The flipside to this argument is that he has cast his net wide and has given opportunities to a wide range of players, including several debutants. So another game before we start the Euro qualifiers against Slovakia at the CCS in Cardiff the following Sunday 24 March, makes sense in that it gives him a final run-out prior to getting down to the proper business of qualifying.

The opening game of any campaign is key, as is winning your home games, so if we’re going to achieve back-to-back Euro qualification, three points at home to the Slovaks would be a great start.

When we were in China last March, they were in Thailand, winning the King’s Cup against the hosts. They then drew 1-1 away with the Dutch and lost 2-1 to Morocco in June, before disposing of a cobbled-together team of Danish semi-pros and futsal players 3-0 in that infamous pre-Nations League friendly. Drawn in a League B group of Ukraine and derby rivals the Czech Republic, they lost 2-1 at home and 1-0 away to the Czechs and lost away to group winners Ukraine 1-0, who they then managed to beat 4-1 at home. A 1-1 draw away to Sweden in a friendly was their other autumn result. Finishing bottom, they were relegated to Nations League C. Despite that, on paper, they’re the nearest standard team to us and I think our games against Slovakia will go a long way to determining how we fare in this campaign. This game is a potential banana skin, but we need three points.

Without any question the game will conjure heady memories of Bordeaux.

We’ll be the last team in the group to start the qualifiers as Slovakia play Hungary at home in Trnava in their first qualifier the night after we play Trinidad. Will that extra day’s rest help us? Croatia host Azerbaijan on the same evening, before heading to Budapest to take on the Magyars immediately after our match in Cardiff.

And Croatia is where the Red Wall will head next on Saturday 8 June. But to where exactly isn’t clear yet. The Croatians announced Osijek as the venue, but the FAW apparently appealed to UEFA, who are inspecting the stadium and will rule whether on its suitability shortly. I know Welsh fans who booked everything on in the assumption the game would be in Zagreb and I also know people who waited until an announcement was made and booked accommodation in Osijek, so there will be people annoyed either way.

After losing last summer’s World Cup Final to France, Croatia had a disappointing autumn. A 1-1 friendly draw away in Portugal was followed by a 6-0 Nations League thrashing in Spain. A 0-0 draw at home to England and a surprisingly-narrow 2-1 home friendly win over Jordan (the country, not the model) came next, before a 3-2 home win against the Spanish. But a 2-1 defeat by the English at Wembley saw them come bottom of their group and get relegated to League B – so we could well end up drawing them again in next year’s post-Euros Nations League. Wherever we play them in June, Croatia are a quality side with an enviable qualification record and they must be favourites to top our group. A draw or a win in this game would really send us on our way and set us up for the next fixture of June’s crucial away double-header in Budapest.

The Hungarians will be away in Azerbaijan the evening of the Saturday we play in Croatia, so will face a later, longer journey back from the Caspian Sea to play us the following Tuesday, compared to our shorter trip over the border from Croatia. The game is will be at the Groupama Arena in Budapest, as they’re currently rebuilding their usual home venue, what used to called the Népstadion, as the Puskás Arena, one of the venues for Euro 2020. It will host three group games and a second round match, so what price on a return to Budapest for the Red Wall in June next year? The game against Hungary will be our first in 14 years against them; a game in which John Toshack took charge of Wales for the first time in his second spell in charge and handed debuts to Sam Ricketts, David Partridge, Stephen Roberts and Danny Collins.

Hungary’s early results in 2018 weren’t great – defeats in friendlies at home to Kazakhstan (3-2) and Scotland (1-0), a 1-1 away draw with Belarus and a 2-1 defeat at homeby Australia. Their campaign in Nations League C was better, they started with a 1-0 loss in Finland, then a 2-1 win at home to Greece, before a 1-0 defeat in the return fixture. An 3-3 draw away and 2-0 win at home against Estonia before a 2-0 victory at home over the promoted Finns saw them maintain a spot in League C. They won’t be easy, but there doesn’t seem to be much to fear either, and Hungary is one of the few non-minnow European countries against whom we have a better head-to-head record. We should be looking at getting three points here.

These three games will tell us what kind of qualifying campaign we’re having. Six points or more from the first three games would be qualifying form, any less than that and we’ll have a mountain to climb already.

The qualifiers resume with Azerbaijan’s visit to Cardiff on Friday 6 September. The Azeris host Slovakia when we play Hungary in June, so they’ll come to Wales on the back of a home double header, the only country in the group to get one. The lowest ranked team, we should look at their visit here as a home banker. In Nations League D last year, they drew 0-0 at home to international newcomers Kosovo and away 1-1 in Malta. They beat the Faroe Islands 0-3 away before a home 0-0 draw against Malta. A 2-0 home win against the Faroes followed, before a 4-0 tonking away by Kosovo completed their campaign. So this game should surely be three points for the men in red.

We take a break from the qualifiers at the half-way point of the group with a home friendly against Belarus on Tuesday 10 September. The venue is still to be announced, and it will be interesting to see if the FAW take the game, like the Trinidad match, away from Cardiff. Back to The Racecourse or more likely the Liberty Stadium? The qualifying group is not put on hold though: Croatia v Azerbaijan and Hungary v Slovakia take place the previous evening.

Then we’re into the run-in and next for us will be Slovakia away on Thursday 10 October. This will be a tricky fixture, but to qualify, we’ll surely need a win or at least a draw here. The Slovaks are also rebuilding their usual home ground, Tehelné Pole in Bratislava, and have been playing their home games in Trnava as a result. The Slovak FA must be using same contractors as Tottenham, as the stadium was originally due to finished in December 2017, but it still isn’t complete. So there’s a chance that our game might be the first for the Slovaks in the reconstructed venue, which could add something to the occasion for the Slovaks. Hungary play in Croatia on the same night.

We then welcome the Croatians to the CCS the following Sunday, 13th October. I’m hoping this will be a crunch game, with the leadership of the qualifying group in the balance but we shall see. I’d back us to beat anyone at home. Azerbaijan are playing in Hungary earlier that evening.

The final qualifying games of the group sees Wales start the November double-header with the long trek to Azerbaijan on Saturday 16th. This is a must win game. The match with be held in another Euro 2020 venue, the impressive Baku Olympic Stadium. Recently built in 2015, it’ll host three group games and a quarter-final next year. So here’s hoping we’ll be back in Baku (sorry) around 7 months later. Incidentally, a quarter of Ryan Giggs’ Wales goals came against Azerbaijan: the final goal in the 4-0 rout in 2003, and both goals in 2005.

Croatia play Slovakia at home later that evening in Croatia’s last qualifying game. Hungary also play a friendly at home against opponents yet to be announced on the same day, but playing a friendly is hardly the same as playing a qualifier, so will that give them a slight advantage ahead of the final night’s fixtures? And for Hungary the final night’s fixture is here in Wales on the evening of Tuesday 19h November, with Slovakia hosting Azerbaijan at the same time.

Where will we be by then? If we’re playing for second place, then it could all come down to that final night. Glenn Hoddle famously said “I never make predictions and I never will”, but fortunately, I’m not Glenn fucking Hoddle, so I think we should expect 12 points from our games with Hungary & Azeribaijan and I’d hope we’d get at least four points from our games with Slovakia. Add to that two or three points from playing Croatia and we’d qualify nicely, probably in second spot, which is exactly what our seeding would suggest.

But this is a short and potentially brutal campaign. If 30-odd years of watching Wales has taught me anything, it’s that qualifying is a tough job for a nation our size and that each campaign is its own event; nothing is a given and it’s a cliff to climb every time. However, I fully believe that we can and should qualify, securing an historic back-to-back Euro qualification and sending the Red Wall off across Europe in June 2020. Here’s hoping anyway and whatever happens, it’ll be a helluva ride.

*Obviously the A470 isn’t the world’s longest road, but it bloody feels like it when you’re driving passed that sign in Llanelwedd that says Dolgellau – 70 miles at midnight on a Thursday in November.

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