As Wales’s players trudged off the pitch in Lyon having lost out in their Euro 2016 semi-final against Portugal, they did so having proven themselves as a footballing nation of some repute for the first time in generations. Outstanding team spirit combined with a touch of world-class talent had carried them to the last-four, and many believed that their comparatively young squad were destined for a place at the 2018 World Cup.
But nine months on, Chris Coleman’s side head into their clash with Republic of Ireland with their hopes of reaching Russia hanging by a thread. A seemingly favourable qualifying group has not proved to be as straightforward as most thought it would be, and though they still have more than half of their matches still to play, a place in the play-offs could even be in doubt should they lose out in Dublin.
Home draws against Georgia and Serbia has left them third in Group D, four points behind table-toppers Ireland. Their only victory has come over group whipping boys Moldova while they have already dropped points at home to Georgia. Defeat to Ireland will leave them seven points off an automatic qualification spot and potentially five away from a play-off berth.
So where has it all gone wrong? In short, Wales have been worked out somewhat. Much like many felt opponents had worked how to stop Leicester City in the Premier League this season, Wales are being scrutinised far more since their tournament success and, as yet, have failed to find a way to counter their opposition.
Sides are more than happy to sit back against Coleman’s team and wait for Gareth Bale to come up with a moment of brilliance if they are going to be beaten. If that does not materialise, then the opportunity is there to claim a draw or even a victory over the Dragons. The performances of Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and Hal Robson-Kanu may have masked the overreliance on Bale in France, but there is no getting away from the fact that the Real Madrid man is the catalyst behind much of what Wales do well.
Bale has still managed four goals in as many qualifying matches, but whereasduring qualifying for the Euros the Wales defence was one of the sturdiest across the continent, now they have carelessly allowed Austria, Georgia and Serbia to come from behind to claim draws. Further lapses could now be terminal.
Former Ireland midfielder Johnny Giles has even gone as far as to claim that Wales are just an average team, but Coleman is not about to get into mind games ahead of – though he refuses to admit – his side’s biggest game of the season.
“If this is an average team I must be a hell of a manager - I'm happy with him saying that because it makes me look good!,” he told a press conference.
“If people want to write us off, that's up to them - I have a huge amount of trust in these players. Why wouldn’t I? We’ve lost one campaign games in 16.
“Their attitude is the best I’ve ever seen. They will go on and they are together. If people want to pressure on this game, that’s up to them, but no chance I will do. I trust them, because look what they’ve done. I don’t worry about it.”
Unlike in the Euros, there are very few second chances when it comes to qualifying for the World Cup. Three teams from some Euro qualifying groups made it to the final 24-team tournament. In comparison, just one side will automatically reach Russia from each of the nine groups, while the best eight runners-up will go into the play-offs. Despite having the talents of Bale at their disposal, anymore dropped points for Wales would leave them needing a remarkable set of results to be playing competitive football next summer.
Despite enjoying something of a renaissance themselves, Ireland would not ordinarily cause a European semi-finalist many sleepless nights. But Wales were no ordinary semi-finalist, and their fall from those heights has left them staring over the precipice of elimination. Wales are a footballing nation who are not unfamiliar with glorious failure, but having built such a solid platform for themselves, this would be verging on embarrassment.