WALES continue their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign with a tricky tie against Azerbaijan on Friday evening. Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) sets the scene.
Wales v Azerbaijan | Friday 6th September 2019, 19:45 | Sky Sports
Wales will be looking to get their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign back on track on Friday night when Azerbaijan arrive at the Cardiff City Stadium. The Dragons come into the contest following crucial back-to-back defeats in Croatia and Hungary in June leaving Ryan Giggs’ group with plenty to do if they’re to achieve a top-two finish in Group E.
Since opening their account with a slim victory over Slovakia, Wales have dropped to fourth in the standings and now know nothing but maximum points from this week’s encounter will be acceptable as the campaign reaches its midway point.
Giggs was appointed in January 2018 and at his unveiling, he said the only way he would convince the sceptics would be by winning games. But it’s hardly been a dream start with the Manchester United legend overseeing just five triumphs from 13 outings (W5-D1 L7).
The Wales boss is leading a talented generation of young players and invested plenty of faith in personnel emerging through the pathway system. Giggs insists Euro 2020 has always been the main focus and sure, there has been positive performance during his tenure, although concerning losses and lacklustre defensive displays have also raised major questions.
Giggs lamented his side's poor finishing and defensive lapses in Croatia – as he had done in Denmark in the Nations League – and it was a similar story against Hungary. The manager has pointed to injuries and some players' lack of match fitness as reasons for their recent failures, and there is no doubt he has had worse luck than his predecessors in that respect.
Aaron Ramsey's absence particularly has been keenly felt, whilst Gareth Bale hasn’t been in tip-top condition for recent internationals. But the repetitive nature of Wales' defeats has also led some to question how much of the responsibility lies with Giggs, who is evidently learning on the job in his first permanent managerial role.
Giggs said he and his players now have precious little room for error in their quest for qualification. Nevertheless, Friday night’s fixture should allow the Dragons opportunity to breathe. Bale has rediscovered his form and confidence, Daniel James is hitting the target at Old Trafford, whilst Harry Wilson and Chris Mepham have shown their Premier League credentials.
Elsewhere, Connor Roberts and Joe Rodon have displayed a defensive maturity above their years and experience to guide Swansea to the Championship summit. Ramsey is again unavailable, as is David Brooks, but Giggs possesses enough ability in the squad to overcome those injury issues and put another three points on the board.
Friday night’s fixture
Azerbaijan head to Cardiff without a point to their name as yet and have notoriously struggled in competitive games. Exclude the Nations League and the visitors have been beaten in nine of their last 10 meaningful matches, whilst on the road Azerbaijan have bagged a solitary success in 10 years and that came at rank outsiders San Marino.
The minnows have managed to notch in each of their opening three outings, but 10 goals against tells a bleak story. Nikola Jurcevic’s men have given up over 2.03 Expected Goals (xG) per-game in those contests and a worryingly high 17.55 attempts at goal. Azerbaijan have also lost 13 of their last 20 away qualifiers, suggesting they should come up short.
Wales have not scored more than once in any of their last nine but a must-win clash in Cardiff should see the Dragons find their feet. Boylesports are offering 6/5 on the hosts winning a match involving Over 2.5 Goals and that’s an angle I’m happy to take – it’s landed in all three of Azerbiajan’s outings. What’s more, the visitors have delivered Over 2.5 Goals profit in eight of their past 10 away days.
Meanwhile, I’ll have a small interest in Gareth Bale to score first at 7/2 (Paddy Power). The Real Madrid man has impressed in his first two La Liga games this season after having a point to prove to the club’s management. He’ll lead the Wales charge in attacking areas and has scored every 147 minutes on average for the national team since 2015.
Wales v Azerbaijan – Wales to win and Over 2.5 Goals (6/5 Boylesports)
Wales v Azerbaijan – Gareth Bale to score first (7/2 Paddy Power)