WALES are on the verge of qualifying for the European Championships, their first major tournament finals in 58 years. Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) assesses their chances on Sunday against Israel.
Wales v Israel | Sunday 17.00 | Sky Sports 1
You’d have got good money on Wales topping Euro 2016 qualifying Group B before a ball was kicked – 50/1, actually. The Dragons were up against the might of Belgium, the upcoming force of Bosnia with the awkwardness of Israel and Cyprus thrown in to ensure there’d be no easy ride for Chris Coleman’s men.
What’s followed has been truly remarkable. Wales are comfortably clear at the top of the Group B tree after seven unbeaten (W5-D2-L0) fixtures and just a win away from securing their place in the European Championships for the first time ever. The Reds were ranked 117th in the world just four years ago – now they’re 90 minutes away from erupting into full on party mode.
Some pundits and supporters have suggested this is the Dragons’ biggest game in history and that’s a little extreme. There’s plenty of breathing space still for Coleman’s charges should things go tits up but I’ve enough confidence in the current camp to believe they’re capable of producing the three points they desperately desire.
Wales have already taken four points off Belgium, held Bosnia in Cardiff and ran away with a comfortable 3-0 success in Haifa during the reverse of Sunday’s showdown. It’s now six wins from nine competitive fixtures following Gareth Bale’s 82nd minute header in Cyprus on Thursday and although marked up as odds-on favourites this weekend (20/23 Boylesports), there’s enough positive ticks to make the hosts a bet.
The Dragons appear to thrive in their role as match favourites. So much so, the Reds have now justified their pre-match position in 10 of their most recent 12 competitive outings in front of their adoring home support. And while Israel are dexterous, they just don’t pose the same threat or mean streak of yesteryear.
Seven road successes in 18 on their travels suggests the visitors are adept travellers but those victories came at Malta, Luxembourg, Northern Ireland, Honduras (twice), Cyprus and Andorra. Eli Guttman’s team ended a three-game losing streak with a comprehensive 4-0 thrashing of Andorra last time out but the travellers typically struggle on the road, losing four of their most recent seven away days with all four losses by two clear goals.
Israel have said the encounter is a ‘must not lose’ fixture with their own Euro 2016 qualification hopes hanging in the balance but failure to notch in two of their most recent four has raised concerns against a Welsh side that’s more than just a one-man Bale band.
James Chester is likely to return to the centre of Wales’ defence on Sunday and it’s a backline that’s functioned superbly thus far. The Reds have now gone 414 minutes without conceding in qualifying and no side in any group has produced as many clean sheets as Coleman’s troops (five).
However, it would be remiss not to highlight the significance of Bale’s contribution during this campaign. The Real Madrid man netted a brace in Haifa during reverse game whilst only Robert Lewandowski has plundered more goals during qualification than Bale’s six. In fact, the world’s most expensive player has scored 60% of the Reds’ goals, including the last four, netting a superb 15 goals in his last 20 appearances in the national team’s shirt since 2011.
Wales are already a very attractive 20/23 to seal qualification with a win but the 11/4 (Bwin) on Bale scoring in a Welsh victory is once again the standout value selection. It won us a few quid on Thursday night and has proven a profitable bet in four of Wales’ five qualifying victories already. That’s where my money’s heading for this Cardiff City Stadium showdown.
Wales v Israel – Wales to win and Gareth Bale to score (11/4 Bwin)