Football / European Championship: Wales hit by Hughes' three-match absence

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The Independent Online
TONIGHT, by way of a change, Wales are beginning rather than ending a qualifying campaign with a hard luck story. Mark Hughes, their player of the year for the past two seasons, looks certain to miss the first three European Championship games while the manager, Mike Smith, treads a delicate and diplomatic line with Manchester United.

Hughes has a persistent groin injury that his club want to protect as much as possible in these days of excessive physical demands and burgeoning fixtures. The priority for them is that the player whom the United manager, Alex Ferguson, says is first on his team sheet remains fit and available for their quest for European Cup glory.

With international weeks falling adjacent to those set aside for the Champions' League, Smith has to bite the bullet. He has to accept that Hughes will not be able to help his country's cause until the real action begins - nearer the 1996 finals.

Already deprived of Hughes for tonight's opening fixture with Albania in Cardiff, the born-again international manager had to admit yesterday it will also be the case against Moldova in October, which comes a week before United play host to Barcelona, and probably against Georgia in November, which precedes United's visit to Gothenberg.

'Mark had a groin strain last season which they thought would be cured with the summer's rest but it has come back quickly again and it's a nightmare for him and his club,' Smith said. 'United are trying to reduce his number of games to an absolute minimum.'

The Welsh public, their patience long exhausted by successive failed qualifying attempts since 1958, will be hard-pressed to understand why they are forced to play second fiddle, especially if, as is likely, Hughes plays at Leeds on Sunday. To be fair to Smith he has to handle the situation with kid gloves because, with Ferguson obsessed with protecting Ryan Giggs, he dare not risk upsetting those in charge at Old Trafford.

'It's a big dilemma for Alex. He's really not sure what to do and I want what's best for Mark as well as for us and Manchester United.'

It eases the situation that Wales' first three games are against sides that ought to be the makeweights in Group Seven, a section that also includes Germany and Bulgaria, the team that proved the biggest surprise at the World Cup. When they play Bulgaria in December they can look forward to having Hughes on board, provided the injury is no worse and an operation is not required.

Dean Saunders' two-match suspension is no help and in the absence of such established and effective internationals, Sheffield United's Nathan Blake has the opportunity to demonstrate he is more than a young man of high promise.

WALES: Southall (Everton); Williams (Reading), Melville (Sunderland), Coleman (Crystal Palace), Bodin (Swindon); Phillips (Nottingham Forest), Goss (Norwich), Speed (Leeds), Giggs (Manchester United); Rush (Liverpool), Blake (Sheffield United). Substitutes: T Roberts (QPR), Symons (Portsmouth), Bowen (Norwich), Pembridge (Derby), I Roberts (Leicester).

ALBANIA (from): Strakosha, Nallbani, Dani; Lekbello, Vata, Kacaj, Xhumba, Bellai; Millo, Demollari, B Kola, Pano, Shchu; Dosti, Dema, Fortuzi, Azalla, Shulku, Haxhiu, Ocelli, A Kola, Gallo.

Referee: G Beschin (Italy).

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