CHRIS Graham (@chrisgraham79) is in the hotseat for Friday night’s clash between Ireland and Wales
Ireland v Wales | Friday 19:45 | Sky Sports 1
There’s lots at stake here as we approach the halfway point of this group. The Irish have taken 10 points out of 12 while the Welsh have four fewer points.
Ireland have made their best start to a qualifying group in quite some time and a win in Austria and a draw in Serbia has put them top of the group and in a great position to reach Russia.
Wales began with a comfortable win over Moldova but have hit the skids since then with dropped points at home to Georgia and Serbia and draw in Austria. As I suspected at the start of the campaign, there may be a hangover effect for Wales after their incredible run to the semi-finals of Euro 2016.
At the heart of any analysis has to be Ireland’s strong record at the Aviva. They went unbeaten there in Euro 2016 qualifying and beat the world champions on home soil to cement their place in that tournament in October 2015.
Unbeaten in seven home qualifiers, their last defeat in a game of this nature came in September 2013 when they lost 2-1 to Sweden. That was under the watch of Giovanni Trapattoni. Under Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane they seem to growing grittier and more confident and will be relishing this match tonight.
Wales have already dropped as many points as they’ve won in this group and a loss here would put them in a very awkward position at the halfway mark.
The presence of Gareth Bale is, as always, huge for Wales and they’l need another talismanic performance from their Real Madrid man on Friday night.
Wales’s away record during Euro 2016 qualifying was good without reaching heady heights. They lost in Bosnia, drew in Belgium and scraped narrow wins in Andorra and Cyprus. A reproduction of the latter form will put them in bother.
Big game mentality
In the Welsh arsenal though is Bale and a big game mentality. Let’s not forget this side were one game away from reaching the final of the European Championships last summer and I’d be surprised if they lost.
Chris Coleman’s side will need to show some courage due to their current predicament and I imagine they’ll push forward rather than adopting a conservative approach.
The Irish have scored in their last 10 home games and 2011 was the last time they failed to register on home soil in a qualifier. It has to be Both Teams To Score for me with 1-1 a big runner.
Wales v Ireland – Both Teams To Score (5/4 William Hill)