Football: Road to Euro 2000 - Giggs launches Hughes era

Wales are back in the hunt for a place in the play-offs; Belarus 1 Wales 2 Baranov 30 Saunders 42, Giggs 86 Half-time: 1-1 Attendance: 25,000
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The Independent Online
MARK HUGHES has not spent a decade and more gathering honours at the highest level to get too carried away by a narrow victory in Belarus, but make no mistake this was a special win for Wales. It was also one that will surely prove decisive for Hughes's ambition to lead his country beyond next month's encounter with Switzerland.

And there was no questioning the caretaker coach's joy when he said: "We were very strong mentally and did not want to be beaten. I'm absolutely delighted not only for myself but my staff and all my players because this is a reward for all the hard work that's gone in. It was important to make a statement, I've only got two games to create an impression and I would like to think I've made a good one."

Hughes had promised a system that would bring more from Ryan Giggs and the nation's golden boy obliged with the winner four minutes from time. That climaxed a sterling comeback after Wales went behind on the half- hour. Dean Saunders was their other marksman as a line was drawn under the turbulent recent past. Not only that, it puts Wales back in contention for the play-off position in Group One.

Hughes's first selection caused a mild surprise. It had been expected that he would revert to a 4-4-2 formation which had been Neville Southall's preference when he took charge for the home fixture against Denmark which immediately followed Bobby Gould's resignation. Instead the line-up showed a return to the three-man central-defensive unit, with no place for the Aston Villa prospect Mark Delaney, who had been tipped to win his first cap. Robert Page's recall added some Premiership experience, albeit very limited at this stage of the season, to a rearguard which also featured the Fulham pairing of Chris Coleman and Andrew Melville.

Coleman's timely block tackle as Vasily Baranov held a cluster of defenders at bay was important as Wales looked vulnerable to the early strike that had been their undoing in recent outings. The best chance in the early stages was in the other goalmouth, where both Coleman and Nathan Blake failed to apply a deflection to Mark Pembridge's in-swinging free-kick.

It was the kind of occasion that Hughes, the great competitor, would have relished. Now standing in his dugout, he would not have been pleased to see how his team failed to link midfield with attack. Consequently the pressure grew and, in the 19th minute, Alexander Chaika hit a powerful shot which brushed the crossbar.

Giggs came in for special attention from his hosts and Chaika's aggressive intent earned him a booking. When Giggs burst clear over the half-way line, possibilities opened up for the Welsh but Saunders, winning his 70th cap (and hoisting to 10 the number of clubs with whom he has won international recognition), was unable to keep the momentum going.

It proved fateful for his team because Belarus countered with chilling efficiency. The ball travelled to Baranov who gained space by outwitting Pembridge before unleashing a thrilling drive to beat Paul Jones. It was the first time Belarus had scored at home in this campaign.

A blistering run from the left-sided defender Igor Tarlovsky threatened a second goal six minutes later but Baranov's shot whistled marginally over the crossbar.

What all this did was to coax something extra from Hughes's troops and Giggs thought he had headed an equaliser from Saunders' centre only for Gennady Tumilovich to thrust up a hand in the nick of time. Then, two minutes later, joy for Saunders when Belarus's failure to clear a right- wing corner placed them in peril. Gary Speed's shot should not have caused the goalkeeper difficulty but his fingers were flimsy and the Bradford man made him pay.

Six minutes from time, Jones reacted splendidly to palm his shot against the bar. Melville had also found wood with a header in the second half and it was his assist, from Page's throw-in, that gave Giggs his winning header.