Giggs 'fed up' with missing out on championship highs

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Having spent the days that immediately followed the draw for the play-offs for next summer's European Championship talking up their chances of qualification, the Welsh players are suddenly showing their first signs of nerves.

The mood was still positive when the squad arrived at Cardiff international airport yesterday lunchtime, but even the most experienced member of the party, Ryan Giggs, is now admitting that defeating the revitalised Russians is going to require two performances of the quality that enabled Wales to overcome the Italians at the Millennium Stadium during the qualifiers.

"It was never going to be an easy draw, was it?" the 29-year-old said as the Wales team prepared to board the plane for Moscow. "I think we can do it, but we are going to have to be at our very best over the two legs. Russia are a very good side that have been growing in confidence of late."

Giggs believes that if Wales can return from Moscow undefeated, they will have a good chance of booking their place for the finals in Portugal next summer. However, that will be no easy feat as Russia have only ever lost one competitive match on home soil in their history. That one setback came against France, who were then the reigning world champions, in a Euro 2000 qualifier back in 1999.

The Welsh, who have several key players such as Mark Pembridge, Simon Davies and Craig Bellamy missing through injury, have their work cut out. "If we can get the right result in Russia," Giggs said, "I think we can finish the job off in Wales. I think it's important to everyone in Wales that we get to Euro 2004. We are desperate to play in a major championship."

No one more so than Giggs himself, a player of terrific ability who, like that other Manchester United left winger George Best, has never graced the biggest football stages. "On a personal note," Giggs admitted, "it has bugged me that I've never had the opportunity to play in a major international tournament. I feel the odd one out and I've got a bit fed up with listening to other players at United talking about playing for their country. I don't want to look back on my career having never played in an international tournament."

Giggs is particularly concerned about tomorrow's first leg in Moscow, a game that will be played in sub-zero temperatures in front of a large partisan crowd. On arrival in the Russian capital late last night, the thermometer read minus five and the word was that it was due to get colder over the next few hours.

"I'm not relishing going out there because of the conditions," said the man who knows a thing or two about the cold weather, having played on a number of occasions in the former Eastern bloc with his club side. "I've been there before and it was freezing, believe me, but we will go there and give them a game. We've not come this far just to throw in the towel."

Some might argue that Wales have already exceeded everyone's expectations, not least when one considers how poor their qualifying record has been since the 1958 World Cup finals. But Giggs insists that the players feel the job is only "half-done". "To be honest," he said, "we've only got ourselves to blame for not qualifying automatically [Wales lost control of the group's destiny when they drew at home to Finland in September], but then I guess that if someone had said to us before the campaign started that we would make the play-offs, I'm sure we would have bitten their hands off."

Russia's coach, Georgy Yartsev, is worried that his players may be over-confident. "I don't share the optimism of some experts who insist we will beat Wales," Yartsev said. "We should live in reality.".

Unlike the Wales manager, Mark Hughes, Yartsev has no major injury problems. The Spartak Moscow playmaker, Yegor Titov, had a minor foot injury but is expected to play. The Lokomotiv Moscow defender Vadim Yevseev is in Munich, where his young daughter is to undergo a heart operation, but will return for the match if the surgery goes well. Yartsev will also have the Porto midfielder Dmitry Alenichev back from an injury.