By Jamie Thomas.
Wales boss Chris Coleman admits the upcoming Euro 2016 qualifier against Israel is one of the biggest games in their history.
The 44-year-old was speaking as he named his squad for the crucial clash with the Group B leaders on Saturday, March 28. His men are just a point behind in second, with two wins and two draws after four games.
Coleman believes it’s their most important match since they lost 1-0 on aggregate in a two-legged Euro 2004 play-off to Russia in 2003.
He said: “This next game will be the biggest game in Welsh football for years, since Russia. It’s an absolutely huge game for us.
“Top against second! The next two games are going to dictate whether we finish in the top two or whether we’re fighting for third.”
The Wales gaffer has called up Burnley striker Sam Vokes and Simon Church of Charlton, but there was no place for James Chester. The Hull defender has missed a lot of games with a shoulder injury, and Coleman doesn’t expect him to face Chelsea this weekend either.
But he admits Vokes – who has recently returned after nine months out with cruciate ligament damage – adds something different to the squad that they haven’t had before.
Coleman said: “A few times we’ve created scenarios in the games where we’re getting balls into the box that would have been ideal for Sam, so it is great to have him back.
“Watching him come back into the fray, it is clear he isn’t 100 per cent but he’s two or three weeks away and, most importantly, back playing football.
“I don’t think Chester will play this weekend. You never know, but speaking to James last week I can’t see him playing. Even so, he’s been out a long time.
“Shoulder injuries take longer to recover from than doctors usually say. It’s a shame because he’s been magnificent for us and has struck a great partnership with Ashley Williams.”
Wales skipper Ashley Williams is expected to win his 50th cap against Israel and Coleman was full of praise for the Swansea star – who he is tipping to go on to play in a record 100 matches.
Coleman said: “Fifty caps was inevitable, really, for him. He’s a great captain and leader, and what better game to get his 50th in?
“Ashley’s been in the real world: he didn’t start at a top Premier League academy or anything, he saw what life is really like. He respects and cherishes every game he plays, that’s why he doesn’t miss games. He loves his job.
“We don’t have any players with over 100 caps. Ash could do it and get 100 but so could Chris Gunter – 57 caps is a very impressive return. We’re trying to push them to as many caps as we can.”
Israel boss Eli Guttman has claimed another Welsh superstar, Gareth Bale, is “saving himself” for his country amidst criticism of his form for Real Madrid. But Coleman refused to get sucked into mind games, and joked: “If he is, then it is great for me!”
The Dragons gaffer is focused on his own team – but he reckons it shows they are wary of the world record signing, who he insists will win over fans at the Bernabeu.
He said: “When you play for Real Madrid, winning is not enough – you have to entertain too. Gareth’s a big boy and he’ll come through this, no problem.
“They’ll be thinking about him – I would be! Most teams would be looking at him – whether he’s on form or not, he can turn a game on its head.
“Gareth comes here, he wants to be involved, he’s incredibly motivated and he is the last person I am worried about, honestly.
“I’ve never been one for mind games. I’d rather get down to business when the whistle blows and see what we can do.”
The Wales squad fly out to Tel Aviv late next week ahead of their qualifier in Haifa on Saturday, March 28. The game kicks off at 5pm live on Sky Sports 5.
Squad: Wayne Hennessey (Crystal Palace), Owain Fon Williams (Tranmere), Daniel Ward (Liverpool), Ashley Williams (Swansea), James Collins (West Ham), Ben Davies (Tottenham), Chris Gunter (Reading), Neil Taylor (Swansea), Samuel Ricketts (Wolves), Ashley Richards (Swansea – on loan at Fulham), Adam Henley (Blackburn), Joe Allen (Liverpool), Joe Ledley (Crystal Palace), Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal), David Vaughan (Nottingham Forest), David Edwards (Wolves), Shaun MacDonald (Bournemouth), David Cotterill (Birmingham), Hal Robson-Kanu (Reading), Tom Lawrence (Leicester), Gareth Bale (Real Madrid), Simon Church (Charlton), Sam Vokes (Burnley).
Read more from Jamie Thomas here.