Euro 2016 Qualifiers: Wales’ double-header against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Cyprus

BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA: Clash of the Dragons

TALES of clashes between dragons are usually reserved for realms of fantasy such as Game of Thrones (or, closer to home, the Mabinogion) however on Friday night this is precisely the spectacle that will await a baying crowd in the Cardiff City Stadium as Chris Coleman’s Welsh Dragons host the Zmajevi (Dragons) of Bosnia-Herzegovina in what will undoubtedly be a fiery encounter in Group B. Having laboured to a thoroughly unconvincing win against perennial whipping boys Andorra in their opening fixture, Coleman’s men face a stern test of their credentials against a side whom many predicted would be Wales toughest rival for the runner’s up spot in the group (assuming, of course, that the group follows the form book and the Belgians come out on top).

UEFA_Euro_2016_qualifyingBefore 2014, the recent history of the Bosnian National side read in a manner that would have been painfully familiar to Welsh football fans, demonstrating that it is not just a common nickname that is shared between both teams. In contrast to their more accomplished neighbours in Croatia and Serbia, the Bosnians were rapidly earning a reputation as the nearly men of Balkan football, having missed out on qualification for the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 at the play-off stage. Thankfully for a team burdened by their media labelling of the ‘Golden Generation’, which will once again resonate with Welsh fans, the Bosnians finally managed to deliver on their promise last year by qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in swashbuckling style, scoring an impressive 30 goals in the process.

Tipped by many as a potential dark horse in last summers’ tournament however, the Bosnians’ first foray into the World Cup ended in a rather subdued fashion, as they were dumped out of a relatively comfortable group, despite a creditable display in their opening match against Argentina. There is evidence that the hangover from Brazil has not yet subsided, as they slumped to a shock 2-1 defeat at home to Cyprus last month, however the wounded Dragons of Bosnia will be itching to strike back against a Wales side that looks ominously lightweight in midfield, due to the omission of Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen from the Welsh squad. The firepower of Edin Dzeko, who was the second top scorer in European Qualification for the World Cup behind Robin van Persie, is by now well known to followers of the Premier League, and in the form of Roma starlet Miralem Pjanic the Bosnians have one of the most exciting young talents in European football at their disposal. This is also an experienced, settled side, despite the retirement of record cap holder Zvjezdan Misimovic this summer. Coleman would also do well to remember his abominable record against former Yugoslav sides before any sense of complacency creeps in: out of a total of 6 games against Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia during the last campaign, Wales conceded 15 goals and picked up a mere 3 points, with the undoubted nadir being a 6-1 thrashing in Novi Sad at the hands of the Serbs.

Backed by a predicted capacity crowd however, and bolstered by the imperious form of talisman Gareth Bale, Wales will be expected to deliver a more confident performance this time around, and build a sense of momentum in what is shaping up to be an open group. The loss of Ramsey is a blow, and a considerable weight of responsibility will therefore fall upon the young shoulders of Jonathan Williams to provide a creative spark in midfield. From a defensive perspective, Ashley Williams will strive for a more assured performance in contrast to his nervy display in Andorra La Vella, while Welsh fans will hope that the lack of game time afforded to Tottenham new boy Ben Davies will not have had a detrimental impact on his international form.

CYPRUS: A new dawn for the golden isle?

Not much was expected from the Cypriots when this group was first drawn. Having dropped to an historic low in the FIFA rankings of 142 back in June, and without a goal to their name since February 2013, few would have predicted their impressive win away to Bosnia last month which has blown an already tight group wide open. In this respect, Coleman will undoubtedly approach Monday’s match with an added degree of caution, especially since memories of a bruising defeat in Nicosia during John Toshack’s reign will still be fresh in the minds of more senior members of the Welsh squad. The Cypriots lack any one who could remotely qualify as a ‘household name’, however their confidence will be soaring after securing perhaps the finest result in their modest history against the Bosnians, and their goal-scorer on that day, Demetris Christofi, will relish the opportunity to deliver another bloody nose to a more ‘established’ team.

Over the course of four days therefore, Wales will face arguably their biggest games for a decade, with levels of public expectation reaching a point that have rarely been seen since the halcyon days of the Euro 2004 qualification campaign. The fact that the Bosnia game is approaching a sell-out is testament to this fact, and Coleman will do well to keep the minds of his players firmly focused on the task ahead. A haul of four points from both games is a realistic target, and will probably maintain Wales’ position at the top of the table, for the time being at least. The stage is set, the excitement is palatable: let’s hope that it is the Welsh Dragon which roars loudest by Monday night.