Football: Giggs' presence galvanises Wales

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The Independent Online
SERIE A's finest may have succumbed twice to the Premiership's - nay Europe's - best this season, but it would be expecting rather a lot of Wales to replicate the performance here at international level this evening, even if their number does include - just for a change - that scourge of Italian defences, Manchester United's Ryan Giggs.

It is not often since he made his debut for the principality eight years ago as a 17-year-old that Wales's only truly world-class player has been available for his country. His selection, at least for the squad, since then has been virtually automatic, but once the game comes around his name is invariably to be found among the list of absentees, withdrawn by his manager, Alex Ferguson, on the grounds of an injury which usually somehow manages to right itself in time for United's match the following Saturday.

Hence, in the past two years, he has appeared in just three of Wales's 10 internationals. No wonder Bobby Gould, the Wales manager, remarked: "It will be nice to pencil his name on the team sheet" - presumably, just in case he has to rub it out again. Against Italy, it will be Giggs's 23rd cap, promptly followed, hopefully, by a 24th, against Denmark at Anfield next Wednesday; Gary Speed, the captain, who made his debut one year before Giggs, should meanwhile be clocking up his 52nd appearance.

One can understand Ferguson's reluctance to release him for meaningless friendlies - "He didn't want me burnt out at 26," explained Giggs - but one does wonder whether his international appearances would have been as infrequent had he been English and playing for a country with a realistic chance of achieving something. Not that Ferguson would admit it, but his consistent withdrawal of Giggs has been an indictment of Wales's standing in the game.

Of course, holding back on Giggs has not helped improve it. Having a European Cup winner in their midst has been good for Welsh morale this week while Giggs himself feels "nice and fresh" after a less demanding end of season than some of his United team-mates. "Just seeing him there changing next to us before games gives the other players a huge lift," said Wales team-mate Dean Saunders.

Whether he can inspire Wales to the Euro 2000 finals is another matter. Even in the 1980s when Wales enjoyed their most successful period since the days of John Charles and company, qualification for the finals of a major tournament was beyond them. And in that time they could boast not one but four world-class players in Neville Southall, Kevin Ratcliffe, Ian Rush and Mark Hughes. In Italy, in the Stadio Dall'Ara, Wales will, however, be more dependent on players drawn from outside the Premiership than Gould would like, and this time Wales will be without Leicester's Robbie Savage due to a Uefa suspension rather than one ludicrously imposed by Gould, as was the case the last time these two teams met, in October, when the midfielder was accused of insulting the Italians in a television interview.

Calamitous defending, notably by Chris Coleman, undermined a half-decent performance that night which returned with a vengeance in Wales's last game, in Zurich against Switzerland, which undid much of the excellent work in beating Denmark (away) and Belarus.

Coleman, who has a calf injury, and his fellow Fulham defender, Kit Symons, are omitted this time, while clubmate Andrew Melville returns alongside Adrian Williams and Robert Page. It rounds off an unforgettable week for the latter, who gained promotion with Watford to the Premiership last Monday. "I played him a couple of years back in a goalless draw against Turkey and he did very well," said Gould, "but unfortunately he and Watford didn't go forward then. Now they have. There's a lot more to come from him."

This is not exactly a vintage Italy team, either. They needed a penalty by Filippo Inzaghi to force a home draw with Belarus in March and the new coach, Dino Zoff, despite winning the other three games in the group, has yet to lift the cloud of depression which settled over the Azzurri since the World Cup quarter-final defeat to France.

Gould believes Italy are in a transitional period and is encouraged by the fact that Zoff "is now into his 39th player" following the withdrawal of Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Nesta and the Arsenal-bound Gianluca Pessotto, but not, unfortunately for Gould, Fabio Cannavaro, whom the Wales manager regards as the best defender in the world. "I told him so after the game at Anfield and he gave me his shirt," he said. This time it might be the turn of the Parma defender.

ITALY: Buffon (Parma) Panucci (Real Madrid), Cannavaro (Parma), Negro (Lazio) or Sala (Milan), Maldini (Milan); Fuser (Parma), Albertini (Milan), Conte (Juventus), Ambrosini (Milan) or Di Francesco (Roma); F Inzaghi (Juventus), Vieri (Lazio).

WALES (3-5-2): Jones (Southampton), Melville (Fulham), Williams (Wolves), Page (Watford); Robinson (Charlton), Bellamy (Norwich), Hughes (Southampton), Speed (Newcastle), Barnard (Barnsley); Saunders (Benfica), Giggs (Man Utd).

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