The game’s afoot

Two excellent performances in Cardiff mean that Cymru have finished as runners-up to Belgium in European Group E and qualified for the World Cup 2022 play-offs. These results also ensured a home draw in the play-off semi-finals, and you can’t ask for more than that – especially as Cymru’s run of undefeated home games has reached 15. This is an all-time record that just keeps on growing: the 1-0 win over Mexico in March took the run to 10, surpassing the previous record of nine consecutive undefeated home games (set twice, between 1983 and 1985 and 2001 and 2003) and now it stands at the unprecedented giddy heights of 15.

That home-fortress mentality might prove vital in a play-off semi-final which will be against either Austria, Czech Republic, North Macedonia, Poland, Turkey or Ukraine next March. We will know who we are up against when the draw is made next week (all are beatable if Cymru are on top form and have a full squad available, but if I had to pick an opponent it would be either twitchy Turkey or nebulous North Macedonia). The draw will also tell us who we might meet should we get to one of the three play-off finals – and with the likes of Italy, Portugal, Russia and Sweden among the possibilities all we can say for certain is that it will be a monumental task. But I’m getting ahead of myself; if I’ve learned one thing from the 63 years of heartbreak and torture since Cymru last qualified for a World Cup it is this: NEVER TEMPT PROVIDENCE.

Belarus were thrashed 5-1 in a thriller, which featured a 45 minute cameo from Gareth Bale winning his 100th cap before his dodgy hamstring tweaked again, a brace of goals from Aaron Ramsey which brought his total to 20 and lifted him to 6th in the all-time scorers list behind only Bale, Ian Rush, Trevor Ford (1923-2003), Ivor Allchurch (1929-1997) and Dean Saunders, a late goalkeeper substitution that earned Wayne Hennessey a spurious 98th cap for one minute’s worth of work, a first-ever international goal for defensive lynch-pin Ben Davies, and a barnstorming, helter-skelter performance by Neco Williams at wing-back. This was Cymru’s third-biggest win in World Cup history, bettered only by 6-0 wins over everybody’s whipping boys the Faroe Islands (in 1992) and San Marino (in 1996), and took the head-to-head record against Belarus to P7, W6, D0, L1, Goals F16-A8.

Belgium, the world’s top-ranked team, were then held to that crucial, nail-gnawing 1-1 draw in front of a capacity crowd at Cardiff City Stadium. The match showed that Cymru are transitioning well to the imminent post-Bale era, that late-flowering Kieffer Moore, who calmly scored his 8th goal in his 24th appearance, is ever more comfortable in international football, that Neco Williams increasingly looks like an authentic star, and that Rob Page is superbly rising to the challenges of management. The head-to-head against Belgium is now P15, W5, D4, L6, Goals F22-A21.

That’s enough positivity and optimism. As I said two paragraphs ago, NEVER TEMPT PROVIDENCE. A good example of what I mean happened in the Belgium game when the crowd from the outset chose to boo Kevin De Bruyne every time he touched the ball – for no better reason than he’s a fantastic player – and then he promptly slotted home a goal with his trademark classy guile and accuracy. I thought back to Alfredo Di Stéfano (1925-2014) doing exactly the same thing in 1961 for Spain to silence a catcalling Cardiff crowd. Don’t people realise that soccer greats are galvanised by mindless hostility? Stop it!

Not for one moment do I think that Cymru will qualify for Qatar 2022; not because it’s impossible, but simply because experience has taught me over and over again that the best way to cope with shattering disappointment is to expect absolutely nothing in the first place. Thinks: I wonder if this strategy will outmanoeuvre Lady Luck this time…