Even at this early stage of the World Cup qualification process the encounter between Wales and Scotland at the Cardiff City Stadium on Friday (7.45pm BST) already looks like a must-win match for both sides.
Scotland have performed slightly better to date, but will nevertheless have been disappointed to only pick up two points from home matches against Serbia and Macedonia last month.
Wales, on the other hand, suffered two defeats, losing 2-0 at home to Belgium and then suffering a humiliating 6-1 thrashing away to Serbia, appearing utterly clueless for the large majority of the 90 minutes.
In a group in which Serbia, Belgium and Croatia have all made strong starts, both teams know that a victory in this match is vital if they are to continue harbouring realistic hopes of making Brazil 2014.
For Wales, performances have dipped significantly in the wake of the tragic death of former coach Gary Speed in November last year. His replacement, Chris Coleman, has been unable to find a winning formula, with Wales losing all four matches of his reign to date, scoring once and conceding 12 times.
The pressure is now mounting on Coleman, who could find his position in threat if Wales fail to beat Scotland on Friday and then succumb to defeat away to Croatia next Tuesday.
Under pressure, there is talk of him reverting to more direct game than that espoused by Speed, returning to basics in an attempt to coax a strong, determined performance from his charges. The inclusion in his squad of the six-foot-two-inch Barnsley striker Craig Davies certainly points towards a shift in the style of play.
Coleman has suffered from a myriad of injury problems in his two competitive fixtures to date, noting that he was without 10 players for the Belgium match and seven for the trip to Serbia. His task against Scotland has been made more difficult by the withdrawal through injury of Craig Bellamy, who also missed the first two qualifiers.
There is some good news for Coleman, however, with metronomic midfielder Joe Allen at full fitness after a virus interrupted his participation last month. Joe Ledley and David Vaughan have also both recovered from their respective injuries to put themselves in contention for Friday’s match.
Coleman must extract better performances from Gareth Bale, who scored in all three of Speed’s final matches in charge and was one of the figureheads of the young team Speed was building. He scored a lovely goal direct from a free-kick against Serbia, but Wales need more from him in open play if they are to turn their qualifying campaign around.
Scotland coach Craig Levein would love to have a player of Bale’s ability in his squad, but with his job hanging in the balance has swallowed humble pie this week to recall two of Scotland’s better players who had not recently been considered for international action.
Steven Fletcher has scored five times in five starts for Sunderland since making his £14 million move from Wolverhampton Wanderers, but has not played for Scotland since October 2010 after rejecting a call up by text in February 2011. He and Levein had not spoken in the interim, but the coach reached out to Fletcher last week and an international return was agreed.
The second returnee is Celtic’s Kris Commons, who angered Levein by pulling out of the Carling Nations Cup squad in May 2011 and a friendly against Denmark three months later, and has not played for the national team since. Commons has been in excellent form for Celtic this season and has been recalled to the squad after an injury forced Robert Snodgrass to pull out.
Levein has often been criticised for setting his team up in an overly defensive way, especially at home. With a win vital to get Scotland’s qualifying campaign on track, he may be forced into a more attacking approach on Friday, with the possibility that both Fletcher and Commons will be included in his starting eleven.
Wales v Scotland Betting Tips Conclusion
Wales are best priced at 17/10 (Betfred, BetVictor, Pinnacle) to win while Scotland are biggest at 15/8 (BetVictor, Blue Square). Neither side is high on confidence and we would expect a tight, cagey match, with plenty of effort and determination but little quality in the final third. Despite both nations really needing a win, our tip of a draw looks the most likely result: