By Jamie Thomas.
Neil Taylor has vowed there will be no repeat of Wales’ 2004 Euros heartache in their qualifier against Israel on Saturday.
Chris Coleman’s second-placed side go into this vital clash with the Group B leaders in Haifa unbeaten in Euro 2016 qualifying so far, as they bid to reach a major tournament for the first time since 1958.
Twelve years ago, Wales were also undefeated after four matches, then failed to win another game before being eliminated by Russia in a Euro 2004 play-off in Cardiff. But Swansea defender Taylor insists memories of that campaign won’t come back to haunt them.
He said: “Being where we are in the group, the opportunity has arisen for us to really push on. We’re almost at the midway stage and it is a big game, but we’re really looking forward to it.
“We’re in a good position at the moment. Saturday is a huge opportunity to try and break away a bit in the group.”
There are many reasons to be positive. For the first time this campaign, Wales have almost a full-strength squad to choose from, which leaves Coleman with a welcome selection headache for once in midfield. He has to decide if he plays a trio of Aaron Ramsey, Joe Ledley and Joe Allen, and in what system if so.
Wales have played a 3-5-2 to cope with Bosnia-Herzegovina and 4-2-3-1 this campaign. If Coleman does go with the three, will we see Ramsey at number 10 with the other two sitting deep? The Arsenal ace has the creativity to play in that role and former FAW head of youth development Chris Whitley described him to The offside Rule as someone who “wants to take the corners and head them in”, so his commitment is beyond question.
In the absence of injured Hull defender James Chester, the Ashley Williams-James Collins combination is a good alternative at the back. Wales will look to their skipper – who earns his 50th cap in Saturday’s 5pm tie in only the 57th international fixture since his debut – for leadership.
Ex-Swans team-mate Allen admitted: “Ash has been a fantastic influence on me, at club and international level. I think the commitment and the drive he has to succeed is brilliant and rubs off on the entire squad.”
Taylor also spoke of the importance of another influential Welsh star, Gareth Bale. The left-back has backed the under-fire Real Madrid forward to silence his critics against Israel.
Taylor added: “I don’t know if playing here is a release for him, you’d have to ask him, all I know is that he looks like he is enjoying his football.
“He’s fit and ready; like everyone, he turns up for every trip and always gives his best. You can see how much he wants it as a Welshman.”
But Wales will have to beware the threat of Israel danger men Bibras Natkho, Eran Zahavi and Lior Refaelov. One-time Tottenham target Zahavi has netted 25 goals in all competitions for Maccabi Tel Aviv, while striker Omer Damari is joint top scorer on five goals with Danny Welbeck in qualifying. They are no slouches defensively either, having shut out Bale’s Madrid team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo when they played Portugal in the last campaign.
Israeli journalist Raphael Gellar admits he’s pleased with their progress in Group B, which also features Belgium and Bosnia-Herzegovina. He said: “It is a very good time for Israel. I expect us to beat Wales and hopefully, get a point from Belgium. If we can get 3 or 4 points from the next two matches, I will be impressed.”
Read more from Jamie Thomas here.