International football has tentatively returned in empty stadiums after a six month hiatus. There’s now a huge backlog of fixtures stacked up that must be crammed into the already packed football calendar and it all kicked off last week for Wales in the best possible way with two 1-0 wins against Finland and Bulgaria in the biennial UEFA Nations League. Important in itself for ranking points and prize money, the Nations League also offers a second-chance convoluted route to qualification for the 2022 World Cup
when if Wales flop in the traditional manner (the best two group winners who haven’t made it to Qatar through normal qualifying go into the 12-team European play-offs). Two quick victories, top of the four-team group (B4), promising youngsters blooded, the winning habit further entrenched, another tactical and managerial triumph for Ryan Giggs, and a real confidence boost as Wales prepare for the delayed Euro 2020 tournament…pinch me, I must be dreaming!
At the luxuriously revamped 1938 Olympiastadion in Helsinki, the match had goalless draw written all over it until lumbering target man Kieffer Moore tapped in a tempting cross from zippy winger Daniel James with just 10 minutes left. Although Finland, ranked 58th in the world (Wales are 23rd), hardly count as a major scalp, it must be remembered that this current Finnish side are no mugs: they will also be participating at next year’s Euro finals (the first time the Finns have qualified for anything, a record that makes Wales’ qualification for one World Cup and two Euros look almost respectable). In addition Wales, as per usual, were missing several senior players for various reasons, meaning Giggs was forced to give debuts to untried tyros 19-year-old midfielder Dylan Levitt from Bodelwyddan, currently at Charlton Athletic on loan from Manchester United, 19-year-old Liverpool full-back Neco Williams from Wrecsam, and 20-year-old Swansea City centre-back Ben Cabango from Cardiff (the latter two as subs). So this win, in Wales’ first game for nearly 10 months, was quite an achievement. Finland created one solitary opening, an unmissable sitter crashed against the post by centre-back Leo Väisänen, but other than that the composed and resolute Welsh defence didn’t give them a sniff. Seasoned campaigner Ben Davies, tough Tom Lockyer (now with Luton Town after Charlton Athletic’s latest financial crisis) and regrettably de-dreadlocked Ethan Ampadu (recently loaned by Chelsea to Sheffield United after failing to break into the first team at RB Leipzig) were Wales’ stand-out performers, while off-the-pace Gareth Bale had a useful 45 minutes away from the golf course in his quest for match fitness. Wales’ head-to-head record against Finland is now P13, W5, D4, L4, Goals F18-A12.
Against Bulgaria four days later at the Cardiff City Stadium, Wales’ winning goal came even later, when impressive sub Neco Williams extended his neck and emphatically headed home an inviting cross from fellow sub Jonny Williams in the 94th minute. Wales deserved it against a limited Bulgarian side, ranked 59th in the world and going through a barren patch. Apart from the tousle-haired Neco, surely a future Welsh star in the making, it was good to see a much sharper Bale last the full 90 minutes, the Davies/Lockyer/Ampadu combo again excelling at the back, the return from injury of David Brooks, the return from retirement of Hal Robson-Kanu and the growing stature of sensible midfield metronome Joe Morrell, now back at parent club Bristol City after a loan spell at Lincoln City. Imagine what can be achieved when a fully fit Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, Chris Mepham, Joe Rodon and Ben Woodburn, plus yet-to-be-discovered Welsh wizard ‘X’, are added to the squad! But I mustn’t get ahead of myself. The head-to-head record against Bulgaria has reached P9, W4, D1, L4, Goals F5-A8. Goals are always hard to come by against them Buggers (note to self: put that last word through spellcheck before pressing the publish button).
Next up in the Nations League will be a double-header away to first Ireland and then Bulgaria in October. To warm up for those important games Wales will play an inconsequential ‘friendly’ against…um, who is it again?…oh yes, England. It’s a pity, because the win over Bulgaria has taken Wales’ current unbeaten run to eight matches, which is equal 3rd best (with the eight in 1980-1981 and 1957-1958) behind the nine of 2016-2017 and the all-time record unbeaten sequence of 10 in 2001-2003, but if past precedent against Lloegr is anything to go by (P102, W14, D21, L67, Goals F91-A247 – we haven’t beaten the buggers for 36 years) that sequence is going to come to a shuddering halt in Llundain on October 8th. Oh well, nothing really matters anymore anyway…