Group A is arguably the toughest and most balanced group of any in World Cup qualifying. The most attractive of its first round of fixtures sees Wales host Belgium at the Millennium Stadium on Friday (19:45 BST).
For Wales, the shadow cast by coach Gary Speed’s tragic suicide in November 2011 still looms large. They had won four of the five matches that preceded his untimely death. His final match in charge was a 4-1 thrashing of Norway, keenly displaying the potential of the youthful, zesty squad he had assembled.
Replacing Speed in such circumstances was always going to be a difficult task. A number of players called for his assistants Raymond Verhaijen and Osian Roberts to be promoted to the top job, but the Welsh FA eventually appointed former Fulham and Coventry boss Chris Coleman (pictured).
Despite Coleman’s best efforts, performances have dipped, with three consecutive defeats (the latter two overseen by Coleman), to Costa Rica, Mexico and Bosnia-Herzegovina, commencing the post-Speed era. Wales were particularly bad in defeat to Mexico – lethargic and unable to string more than a couple of passes together.
Coleman will argue that he requires time to get the team playing the way he wants, but time is not a commodity he is likely to be provided in a group in which a strong start is vital. If Wales hope to stand a chance of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup they must pick up points from the get-go, especially at home.
Injury problems have certainly not aided Coleman’s hopes of doing so, with a lengthy absentee list that includes defender Neil Taylor, midfielders Andrew Crofts, David Vaughan and Joe Ledley, and forward Craig Bellamy. He will be thankful that he can call on three of his most important players: Aaron Ramsey, Gareth Bale and Joe Allen.
Even with those three in the team, Wales will face a difficult task securing three points against a Belgium team that possesses an abundance of quality.
The names Eden Hazard, Jan Vertonghen, Marouane Fellaini, Mousa Dembele, Romelo Lukaku, Thomas Vermaelen and Vincent Kompany will all be familiar to English Premier League viewers, while Kevin Mirallas and Christian Benteke soon will be. Add in €40million central midfielder Alex Witsel and it is easy to see why many are hailing this as a golden generation of Belgian players.
However, they have thus far been unable to convert this promise into success. Belgium failed to qualify for Euro 2012 after finishing third in their group behind Germany and Turkey. They picked up just one point from their four matches against the top two, with disappointing draws against Austria and Azerbaijan sealing their fate.
Former international midfielder Marc Wilmots was promoted to head coach after assisting Georges Leekens in that unsuccessful qualifying campaign and has begun his reign with one win, one draw and one defeat.
The most recent friendly, a 4-2 victory over the Netherlands, showed a great deal of promise, and has contributed to Belgium’s standing as second favourites at 2/1 with Bet365 and Stan James (as short as 13/8 with BetVictor) behind Croatia to win the group and qualify for the World Cup.
New Chelsea recruit Eden Hazard – so impressive in his early outings in the Premier League – has called on his teammates to make a concerted push to qualify for the country’s first World Cup since 2002. “In a way it’s now or never for Belgium,” he stated at a press conference earlier this week, and a positive start to their campaign in Cardiff would certainly set them on the right track.
In many ways this match is a hard one to call, as despite Belgium’s talented squad they are yet to perform at the level many expect of them. Wales, too, have regressed since Speed’s death, and have failed to score in each of their last three outings.
Wales v Belgium Betting Tips Verdict
- We feel that the away team are finally ready to transform potential into reality and recommend backing Belgian to win at 20/23 with BetVictor.
- Wales’ recent struggles in front of goal allied to Belgium’s strong defensive unit also makes Belgium to keep a clean sheet, at 13/8 with Ladbrokes, an attractive proposition.
- Along similar lines, backing under 2.5 goals in the match at 3/4 with Bet365 also appears sage.