Football: Welsh see the dream demolished

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The Independent Online
Wales 1

Speed 67

Belgium 2

Crasson 24, Staelens 44

Attendance: 15,000

In the shell of a great, dying stadium, Wales's hopes of qualifying for the 1998 World Cup finals were extinguished last night. The builders have already moved in to Cardiff Arms Park to prepare for the reconstruction of this national edifice, and it was clear from the nature of the Welsh defeat against Belgium last night that the football team's redevelopment is at a similar early stage.

Despite a wonderfully committed response in the second half, which allowed them to reduce the two-goal deficit they had conceded in the first, Wales were, in truth, some distance behind their opponents. Belgium were swifter of thought and movement on the night and were able to put into practice the strategy of rapid, incisive counter-attacks.

Nobody doubted that Wales were up against it. Their World Cup ambitions were already on a life-support machine and while a victory was hardly about to remove them from it, it would delay the pulling of the plug.

Their supporters decided to stay away in droves, perhaps fearful of the worst. Those that arrived were housed largely along one side of the old stadium and while their enthusiasm was admirable, the total absence of fans behind both goals made the atmosphere eerie if not quite funereal. These are not circumstances to which Ryan Giggs is accustomed in the Theatre of Dreams at Old Trafford, and he was already playing under pressure with the small matter of the necessity to demonstrate his commitment to the Welsh cause.

It took him all of 40 seconds. Wales attacked sharply from the kick-off and channelled the ball out to Clayton Blackmore wide on the right. Blackmore, returning to the side at the age of 32 after a three-year absence, sent in a perfect cross to Giggs, who had raced through the centre. For a moment his header looked to be going in but Filip de Wilde sprang to his left to save.

Giggs was briefly in electrifying mood and only Franky van der Elst's intervention stopped a long, menacing run. Still, it was noticeable that Belgium were not remotely unnerved by these early forays. With a heavily packed, skilful midfield, they were designed to counter- attack, and as they found their rhythm they did so with alacrity. The concern for Wales was that with Gary Speed in a still unfamiliar role in central defence, they might be caught by the swiftness of movement.

Only Blackmore's backside followed by Robert Page's tackle prevented Luis Oliveira making more of an opening near the penalty spot. When Oliveira shot wide with his left foot minutes later, signs of a breach were increasing.

Both Oliveira, a naturalised Brazilian, and Lokonda M'Penza looked a handful, but it was the full-back Bertrand Crasson who gave the Belgians the lead. Giggs, back in defence, was challenged and the ball ran out to Crasson, who drove home from some 30 yards off the underside of the bar.

If there was a hint of frustration in Wales's play, this was heightened as both Page and Mark Hughes were booked for careless challenges. Their attacks were more frequent than those of Belgium, but were neither as accurate nor as incisive. A couple of crosses went to waste before Belgium scored their second on the point of half-time. Bart de Roover's ball from the left was met by Lorenzo Staelens, who had been in sterling form in midfield, and his header squeezed past Neville Southall at his right-hand post.

In essence, that should have been job done for Belgium. They were too clever, too tricky, too smart. As individuals, only Giggs among the opposition matched them. But this was to reckon without the home side's famous spirit. At last they showed it.

Giggs moved over to the right wing permanently, where his directness and pace immediately had a telling effect. He created uncertainty where previously there had been none. Hughes had a powerful shot blocked on the line and midway through the half Giggs won another corner in a swift series of them. Blackmore's kick found Speed, whose header was of the no-nonsense variety. But that was all Wales could muster and it was Belgium, who introduced the wonderfully talented Enzo Scifo for the final 10 minutes, who finished the stronger.

Wales (3-4-1-2): Southall (Everton); Symons (Manchester City), Speed (Everton), Page (Watford); Blackmore (Middlesbrough), Jones (Wimbledon), Horne (Birmingham City), Pembridge (Sheffield Wednesday); Giggs (Manchester Utd); M Hughes (Chelsea) Saunders (Notts Forest). Substitutes: Hartson (West Ham) for Saunders, 65.

Belgium (3-5-2): De Wilde (SC Lisboa); De Roover (Lierse), Van Meir (Lierse), Smidts (Antwerp); Crasson (Napoli), Van der Elst (Bruges), Staelens (Bruges), Le Moine (Mouscron), Van Kerskhoven (Lierse), Oliveira (Fiorentina), L M'Penza (Mouscron). Substitutes: M M'Penza (Mouscron) for M'Penza, 65, Scifo (Monaco) for Oliviera, 80.

Referee: C Faellstrom (Sweden).

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