Wales will be looking to make it two wins from two in qualification for the 2018 World Cup when they take on Austria, who also emerged victorious from their opening encounter (7.45pm Thursday on Sky Sports 1).
Chris Coleman (pictured) guided the Welsh to their greatest ever tournament showing in the summer, with the European Championship debutants reaching the semi-finals after a famous defeat of Belgium in the last eight. Eventual winners Portugal finally sent them home after a 2-0 win at the Stade des Lumieres in Lyon but it was a fantastic achievement for Wales to even get that far, with Coleman and co. now determined to prove that their run to the latter stages of the continental competition in France was no fluke.
They got their bid to reach the World Cup in Russia in two years’ time off to the perfect start last month, thrashing Moldova 4-0 at the Cardiff City Stadium thanks to goals from Sam Vokes, Joe Allen and Gareth Bale (two), but a trip to Austria on Thursday represents a much tougher test. Indeed, although the draw was relatively kind to Wales, the fact that only one team from each group will automatically advance to the tournament proper means there is very little margin for error over the next 12 months.
Austria were almost the polar opposite of Wales at Euro 2016, with Marcel Koller’s men unable to live up to expectations and exiting in the group stage. A goalless draw with Portugal was all they had to show for their efforts in France, as the Austrians emphatically failed to live up to their tag of potential dark horses to reach the latter rounds.
Koller remains in charge despite that disappointment and will be determined to lead Austria to the World Cup to compensate, with the Central European nation having not taken part in the competition since 1998. A 2-1 triumph over Georgia a month ago meant Das Team were able to get their campaign off to the perfect start, but their two duels with Wales will probably be decisive and they will need to handle the pressure that comes with that at the Ernst-Happel-Stadion in Vienna this week.
Coleman’s 23-man squad for Thursday’s clash and the subsequent meeting with Georgia next week features many Premier League stars. These include Allen, Vokes, Ben Davies, Joe Ledley, Wayne Hennessey, Hal Robson-Kanu, James Collins, Ashley Williams, Neil Taylor and Andy King, as well as Real Madrid forward Bale.
Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey remains sidelined through injury. Crystal Palace’s Jonny Williams – currently on loan at Ipswich Town in the Championship – will also miss out, but fellow young players Emyr Huws, Tom Lawrence and Danny Ward could feature in some capacity, although all three will have to make do with places on the substitutes’ bench initially.
Austria’s group of players contains Premier League-based Kevin Wimmer (Tottenham Hotspur), Marko Arnautovic (Stoke City) and Sebastian Prodl (Watford). There is also Bayern Munich’s David Alaba and Bayer Leverkusen duo Aleksandar Dragovic and Julian Baumgartlinger. Marc Janko has found the back of the net on 27 occasions in 54 appearances for his country and will have to be well marshalled by the Wales backline, while Hannover winger Martin Harnik is another player capable of causing problems for the Dragons.
Our preview’s betting tips verdict is that a draw between Austria and Wales looks to be the best bet for this one. While the visitors will probably cause problems with their speed and directness on the break, the hosts also possess plenty of quality and should be able to create some good goalscoring chances. A wager on the game finishing 1-1 could be therefore be the way to go, with Vokes a decent choice for anytime scorer.