Ahead of Ireland’s final World Cup qualifier in Wales in a match that will put one of the two into a playoff, the Opel Jersey caught up with Scott Salter of In Bed with Maradona to get the Welsh perspective of the massive clash in Cardiff.
The Opel Jersey: Scott, Welsh performances seem to have improved greatly in the latter half of Group D qualifications. Was it indeed the case of a “post Euros slump”? If so, why would such a slump have occurred? Or were there other reasons for the slow start?
Scott Salter: Sure, performances have improved and we look like a much better site in the latter half of the group qualifiers, but it’s important to remember that we’re unbeaten in the group so things were never that bad.
TOJ: I think Chris Coleman deserves a lot of credit for the improved performances, though. After the success at the Euros, opposition managers were setting their sides up to negate the Welsh threat. We’re best playing deep and hitting teams on the counter-attack, but opponents have sat deep themselves and have invited us to break them down. Playing the same system as at the Euros meant we struggled with that, but Coleman has adapted.
SS: Playing Sam Vokes instead of Hal Robson-Kanu has made a big difference, as he pushes defenders back whereas the latter relies on space in behind. Playing more creative players like Tom Lawrence and Ben Woodburn has been a big call by Coleman, but one he should be applauded for as they’ve made a huge difference.
TOJ: The Irish media + fans have been quite critical on how the team have let their group topping position slip in the last few games, how have the Welsh media/public viewed the Welsh campaign?
SS: As always, there’s a sense of great optimism in Wales. Neither fans nor the media have doubted Coleman’s side or that we’ll qualify from the group. Of course, we’re all slightly nervous that we won’t qualify but we’re optimistic and we’re still riding on a high – to even have a chance of qualifying for a World Cup is a change for us!
TOJ: Chris Coleman insisted the game take place at the Cardiff City Stadium rather than in front of 80,000 at the Principality Stadium? Has the more narrow pitch influenced the approach of the team? Has the atmosphere been better in the smaller ground?
SS: With Coleman’s old system, I think the narrow pitch benefitted Wales, but with the adjustments made to counter teams sitting deep, I think it has less of an impact.
In my opinion, playing the game (and the rest of our international fixtures) at the Cardiff City Stadium boils down to two factors. Firstly, would we sell out 80,000 tickets? Maybe, but having the match at the CCS rather than the Millennium Stadium means a more intense atmosphere. I’ve been to plenty of matches at the Millennium with not even 20,000 fans and it makes for a dire atmosphere.
I think that Coleman sees it as a bit of a superstition, too. We’ve done well since switching our games to be played at the CCS, so why change anything?
TOJ: Wales changed their team and formation against Georgia to a back four. Was this a reaction to Georgia’s shape or perhaps looking for more attacking presence without Bale? Which formation is Coleman most likely to go with on Monday night?
SS: A bit of both, really. As mentioned, his change in shape and personnel is a reaction to opponents sitting deep to counter our favoured style of play. There’s no doubt that Bale’s absence would’ve been felt and impacted Coleman’s thinking, but I think he would’ve played the same system anyway.
TOJ: What Welsh line-up do you expect to see Coleman go with?
SS: I think Coleman will stick with the same line-up as against Georgia. It seemed to work well and I don’t think we need to put a back three back in as I don’t think Ireland pose too much of a threat to justify another defender.
TOJ: Ben Woodburn has come off the bench and had big impacts on Group D games. How good is he and where do you see him influencing the game on Monday?
SS: Honestly? I think he’s as good as Gareth Bale was at his age. He’s a different player, of course, but he excites the fans and he makes things happen. He showed in his first two caps the class that he has, but what impressed me the most was the responsibility he took upon himself. Against both Moldova and Austria, he seemed to take the game by the scruff of its neck and make things happen.
On Monday, I think he’ll start on the bench but if we’re still not winning by about 60 minutes, I think Coleman will turn to Woodburn to make the difference.
TOJ: Coleman has altered between Vokes and Robson-Kanu, both very different players, both offering very different outlets. Will be play the one with better movement or the one with more back to goal presence and why?
SS: Vokes, no doubt about it. Robson-Kanu is a hard-worker and is a very willing runner, but that’s not what we need against Ireland. We need someone like Vokes to lead the line and bully a strong Ireland back line. Ireland will sit deep, which HRK will struggle against as he won’t have the space in behind to run into.
TOJ: Joe Allen had a very big game in Dublin, dictating the play for Wales. Is he Wales’s most influential player now that Bale is injured?
SS: He’s our most influential player when Bale is fit. People may laugh at that – Gareth Bale is one of the world’s best players – but Joe Allen makes us tick. When he’s missing, our rythm is missing. Of course, Gareth Bale has the star quality to make something out of nothing, but in terms of influencing the way we play, wee Joe is the man.
TOJ: Wales performed very well without Bale away to Serbia. It appeared Aaron Ramsey had a very strong performance that night. Have Wales had others step up in Bales absence in Belgrade and Tbilisi?
SS: I think it’s insulting to call Wales a one-man team. Bale has only scored four goals this qualifying campaign don’t forget – others have stepped up and have made the difference. Aaron Ramsey has been one of them, but across the board, players have stepped up. Ben Davies has been immense this qualifying campaign, Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey, Dave Edwards – to a man they’ve been great.
TOJ: On that, in what ways do you think Coleman has tried to compensate for Bale’s absence in his use of other players?
SS: I don’t think he’s needed to. Coleman, the fans and the media, have confidence in the squad as a whole. It’s outside of Wales that the hype over Bale’s absence has been increased – in Wales, not many are talking about it.
TOJ: What is the mood in Wales with the public + media in the run up to this game?
SS: Optimistic and confident. Ireland are a good side, don’t get me wrong, but we’re unbeaten in the group and I don’t think anyone expects us to lose that record tonight.
TOJ: With 10 mins to go and the game’s a draw, how do you see the game going when both need a win? Absolute insanity, end to end stuff?
SS: Probably. It will certainly be interesting viewing for the neutrals, whilst Irish and Welsh heartbeats will be increasing. Both managers will have to instruct their sides to go for it, surely? Ireland definitely have nothing to lose, whilst Wales may be wary of other results (both Serbia’s and Croatia’s) before deciding to go for it.
TOJ: Finally Scott, how do you see the game going?
SS: It’ll be tense and both sides will have their moments, but I think Wales will pull through. After what happened to Seamus Coleman, I’d expect Irish players to be well up for this match, but with a chance to qualify for our first World Cup since 1958, the Welsh squad will do everything in their power to push us over the line. 2-0 Wales win.
This article first appeared on the Opel Jersey, entitled “Opposition Watch: Wales”