Day of destiny as weakened Wales take on 'The Trident'

Manager Hughes puts brave face on limited resources while combative midfielder gears up for 'the biggest game of my career' against Azzurri
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The Independent Football

Before captaining England's cricketers for the first and last time, Chris Cowdrey sought out the West Indies skipper, Viv Richards, to exchange teams. "Let me see. There's Greenidge, Haynes, Richardson, Dujon, Marshall, Walsh, Ambrose," Richards grinned, waving away Cowdrey's offer of the England team-sheet. "Man, you select who you want." This morning Mark Hughes might understand how Cowdrey felt.

Yes, the Italians may be missing Francesco Totti but Filippo Inzaghi will take his place. Christian Vieri may be hampered by a dodgy knee, but no matter, Juventus' Marco Di Vaio is on standby. By contrast, the Wales manager yesterday nursed his injury-ridden squad through their final training session before tonight's critical European Championship qualifier knowing that neither of his two most likely central defenders play in the Premiership and one of them cannot be described as match fit.

The vicious debate between Wales and Newcastle United as to whether Craig Bellamy should be risked against Italy has obscured the truth that the Welsh squad have been shot through with injury before their most important game since taking on Romania at Cardiff Arms Park for a place in the 1994 World Cup finals.

John Hartson, on whom so much usually depends, has barely kicked a ball in anger for Celtic this season. Danny Gabbidon, who looked effortlessly commanding in Belgrade last month, has almost certainly been ruled out with a heel injury. Andy Melville is also unfit, while Sheffield United's Robert Page, another highly effective performer in the narrow 1-0 defeat in Serbia, has had the benefit of one training session. Reading's Adrian Williams is available but his last competitive international was the 4-0 demolition by Italy in Bologna four years ago which persuaded Bobby Gould to finally tender his resignation.

Hughes, who played in that game alongside Bellamy, has not transformed Welsh football by giving in to commentators who pronounce his side has no chance. As he sat on the terrace of the team hotel where the Lombard countryside begins to blur into the outskirts of Milan, Hughes mined the same vein of quiet confidence which has served Wales so well.

"Sometimes the way to show respect to very good players is to dump them on their backsides," he said when asked if he feared the reputation of the Italians, who have not lost in Milan since going down to Hungary in the early days of Mussolini's dictatorship. "You have to have confidence in your own ability and need to stand up to reputations. Sometimes reputations are deserved, sometimes they are undeserved."

Since the stunning defeat inflicted on them in Cardiff 11 months ago, the Italians have been playing catch-up and now, with the gap at the top of Group Nine down to two points, the Welsh can feel a foreign breath on their shoulder. But although the Italians have now enjoyed six straight victories in qualifiers and friendlies, Hughes tried to deflect the mounting pressure.

He said Wales were not expected to win at the Millennium Stadium in October and they would not be expected to be anything other than beaten tonight. "Italy have to win the next three games and the onus is on them to keep winning. They have a very demanding football culture and that sometimes inhibits the way they play."

Vieri's knee has dominated the Italian football press in the same way Bellamy's has in Wales, although Hughes, who suspects a smokescreen, expects him to play as part of the three-pronged attack which overcame Germany last month and which the Italian media have nicknamed "The Trident". When Wales last played in Italy in the summer of 1999, 12,000 saw them; this evening at San Siro there should be nearly six times as many, watching an Italian team all but one of whose likely starters have been drawn from Juventus and the two Milan clubs. In every sense of the word Italy are playing at home, and one where they have not lost for 78 years.

Hughes will not be unnerved by that. "The team has grown since we last played Italy. The players are really aware of the history side and they know they have a chance of doing it. History is there to be made and what drives everybody on is to get to these championships."

His captain, Gary Speed, said the feelings that ran through his mind were not of fear but "anticipation and excitement". He played at San Siro in March, in a Newcastle side that drew 2-2 against Internazionale and merited more. Then Newcastle had to win. Now a draw would do very well.

"You can sometimes look too deeply into the opposition," Speed said. "We have to grasp the opportunity with both hands. The days of us going to stadiums like the San Siro and being intimidated have gone because we now have the Millennium Stadium. This is a team that is comfortable with itself and the job it has to do."