Bellamy fired by the Greeks' Euro example

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The Independent Football

An ardent fan of Wales recently visited a BBC website to insist he would rather his country never qualified for the finals of a major competition again rather than take part in a Great Britain side. By the look of things, he could well be cheering for Wales for the foreseeable future without the need of any help from their neighbours.

Wales start their qualifying campaign for Germany 2006 against Azerbaijan in Baku on Saturday, and then Northern Ireland in Cardiff on 8 Sept-ember. Austria, Poland and England will follow, with the top two teams qualifying.

Success for Wales will be second place, according to their vital striker Craig Bellamy, in a rare display of realism after they beat Euro 2004 surprise side Latvia in a friendly earlier this month. Bellamy said: "I am only being realistic, because there will be uproar if England don't top our group. England are regarded as world-class.

"I feel that it is a battle between us and Poland for second place. But don't get me wrong; I think we have every reason to feel positive. Look what Greece did in the summer, winning Euro 2004. They showed what can be achieved with a solid defence and well- worked set-pieces."

Wales came within a whisker of making it through to Portugal, missing out to Russia in a close play-off tie that should not have been necessary after a qualifying campaign which featured a win over the might of Italy. But for them to emulate Greece might seem ridiculous, considering they have not qualified for any major finals since the World Cup of 1958.

That was in the era of the late, great John Charles, who was ruthlessly kicked out of the tournament by rival defenders before Wales succumbed to Brazil and Pele in the quarter-finals.

Wales's pride sufferedwhen they slipped to 64th in the world rankings, behind Scotland, Israel, Peru, Qatar, Honduras and Algeria. But those ratings are a farce, and Wales have sufficient strength to perform at the highest level. They have front-line players such as Ryan Giggs (suspended for their first two games), John Hartson, Bellamy, Gary Speed, Jason Koumas and Robbie Savage. And they can rely on others who seem to have made the transition to international football look easy, in the form of emerging talent such as Robert Earnshaw, on his way to Premiership club West Brom from Cardiff, and young defender James Collins.

As well as defeating Latvia, Wales have beaten Scotland by four goals since falling at the last hurdle against Russia, and the talismanic Savage believes they are ready to step up another gear and get to the finals in Germany.

He said: "We had to get what happened against Russia out of our system and we've done that with those two wins. We are definitely a nation on the up and we have a number of young lads coming through, such as Rob Edwards of Aston Villa and Rob Earnshaw." But before the battle of Britain begins, Wales's manager, Mark Hughes, will have to steel his side for a match against Azerbaijan they can ill afford to lose.

And there will be a vague reminder of their '58 World Cup defeat in the form of the Azerbaijan coach, Carlos Alberto Torres, the 1970 Brazil World Cup-winning captain. The bullish Torres has steered his side through a run of five games without defeat, and he does not expect that form to collapse on Saturday.

"We want to start the campaign with a win. We respect our opponents, but are not afraid of them," he said. "I am sure we'll be in good shape."

Torres has the advantage of having had his squad together for three weeks in the build-up to the match and has recruited his son, Alexandro, to help with the coaching duties. Torres Jnr was in Riga to watch Wales beat Latvia, and must have gone away impressed.

Hughes is expected to persevere with Hartson in a one-man attack, with Bellamy tucked in behind. The former Old Trafford hero is also hopeful that the Cardiff trio of Danny Gabbidon, Earnshaw and Paul Parry, who all missed the Latvia game, as well as Nathan Blake, who has had a hamstring problem, will all be fit too.