Usually, hearing the words ‘Bale Out’ makes Irish heads hang. On Tuesday morning though, the country – and the football community in particular – were almost in rapture at the news that Welsh talisman Gareth Bale will miss the last two World Cup qualifiers.
The Real Madrid star’s absence shines a little light on to what had been a grim proposition for Martin O’Neill’s men. Ireland’s last two group games are at home to Moldova on Friday and away to Wales on Monday. Anything less than three points against Moldova is unthinkable, Bale or no Bale.
Victory in Cardiff – given the fact that O’Neill’s men are without a win in 2017 – was always going to be difficult. With Bale out of the picture it seems more achievable. In reality, Ireland face many of the same difficulties they did when they drew 0-0 with Wales at the Aviva Stadium earlier this year.
Wales play a brand of possession football that revolves around an axis of Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey. Bale is a peripheral figure in much of their build-up play. Rather than dropping deep to get touches on the ball, the former Tottenham man stays high to stretch the pitch and allow the Welsh midfield the space to operate in little triangles.
As Wales exert control over games by keeping the ball Bale interjects sporadically to devastating effect, never more so than during Wales’ impressive showing at Euro 2016. He was often quiet in those games but produced big moments when it mattered.
Thankfully, Ireland won’t have that potential one-punch knockout power to contend with. Stunting Wales’ possession game and forcing their own will on proceedings remains a massive ask. Both group games against Georgia demonstrated our lack of composure on the ball and ineffectual pressing of teams who have it in abundance. But the Georgians may have more of a say on the group’s final standings than anyone may previously have thought.
Wales have to travel to Tbilisi on Friday. It’s a game they’ll be expected to win even without Bale. Although the Georgians are yet to win a group game, they’ve drawn five and only lost by more than one goal once – to group leaders Serbia.
Given their performance at the Aviva Stadium, where Ireland took away a lucky three points with a 1-0 victory, it’s not inconceivable that they will take points off Wales.
The injury to Bale has rallied the Irish troops for victory in Cardiff. If Wales don’t leave Tbilisi with all three points and we can turn over Moldova we may only need a draw at the Millennium Stadium.
Playing for a draw doesn’t suit this Ireland side but O’Neill’s pragmatic streak has been overridden by unpredictable, wild abandon in do-or-die situations in the past. Going to Cardiff needing all three points may be the best situation for the boys in green.
All eyes will be on Monday but Friday will have more bearing on O’Neill’s approach.
Stephen Vaughan, Pundit Arena