Euro 2016 semi-finalists Wales are in need of a victory as they attempt to boost their chances of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup against the Republic of Ireland on Friday night (7.45pm, Sky Sports 1).
Martin O’Neill’s side, who reached the knockout stage of the aforementioned European Championship before succumbing to host nation France, are sitting pretty at the top of the Group D table ahead of this weekend’s encounter.
The Republic of Ireland, who have participated in a total of three World Cups in 1990, 1994 and 2002, kick-started the current campaign with a 2-2 draw in Serbia, before going on to beat Georgia (1-0 at home), Moldova (3-1 away) and, most impressively of all, Austria (1-0 in Vienna) . It has been a fantastic start in what looks like one of the more open qualification groups in the European section, but there is still a long way to go before Ireland can begin making their travel plans for Russia. The margin separating them from third-placed Wales currently stands at just four points, while they are only two points ahead of Serbia in the play-off spot.
Wales are also unbeaten in the four matches they have contested so far, but that record belies the frustrating nature of many of their results up to now. A 4-0 thrashing of Moldova sent Chris Coleman’s charges straight to the summit of the standings following the first round of fixtures, but back-to-back draws with Austria, Georgia and Serbia leaves them four points behind the Republic of Ireland ahead of Friday’s game at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
It is difficult to say whether or not the Welsh are suffering from some sort of post-Euro 2016 hangover. The euphoria of their run to the last four in France will be hard to match in the coming years. Coleman must now ensure that his players are fully focused on the task in front of them. Defeating the Irish would significantly bolster their prospects of reaching Russia, but a loss would make automatic qualification unlikely at the halfway stage of the campaign.
The Republic of Ireland’s squad for this weekend’s encounter includes Stoke City’s Jonathan Walters, Southampton’s Shane Long, Everton’s Seamus Coleman, West Bromwich Albion’s James McClean and West Ham United’s Darren Randolph, as well as seven other Premier League players.
O’Neill has a number of injury problems to contend with, however. The first-choice central defenders Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark are both unavailable for selection, while midfielders Harry Arter, Robbie Brady and Wes Hoolahan will also play no part.
Wales, meanwhile, have named Real Madrid forward Gareth Bale, Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey, Tottenham Hotspur left-back Ben Davies and Everton centre-half Ashley Williams among their number. Then there is the Crystal Palace goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, Leicester City midfielder Andy King, West Ham United defender James Collins and Burnley frontman Sam Vokes. Coleman switched to a 4-2-2-2 formation in Wales’ stalemate with Serbia last November having previously favoured a 3-5-2, but it would not be at all surprising to see the former Fulham and Real Sociedad boss return to a three-man backline for his team’s trip to Dublin.
The Republic of Ireland may be in the stronger position in Group D at present, but it could be worth backing Wales to get back to winning ways at the Aviva Stadium on Friday night. Coleman’s men have generally kept things tight at the back this campaign, conceding only four goals in four games, and in Bale and Ramsey they have the attacking quality to cause the hosts problems. An away win therefore looks like the best option from a betting perspective, while the odds with the bookies on Bale finding the back of the net anytime are not as short as this preview had expected. So these are our betting tips: