Hartson hopes to renew local rivalry as Wales head for play-offs

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The Independent Football

The final whistle had shrilled an hour previously and already Welsh minds were turning not to next month's final European Championship qualifier but what lay beyond.

Group tables were being anxiously studied. Nobody in Cardiff believed Italy would fail to overcome Azerbaijan at home, so next month's match with Serbia and Montenegro, which would mark the end of what has been, by ordinary standards, a hugely successful group campaign, was of limited relevance. Wales would accept being runners-up and the talk was all about who they might meet in November's play-offs.

There are some formidable sides likely to finish second. The Netherlands, after their 3-1 defeat in Prague, certainly will, and unless Northern Ireland can discover the art of scoring goals - let alone winning - in Greece next month, they will be joined by Spain.

Although privately officials at the Football Association of Wales would yearn for a Slovenia or a Latvia, popular bravado demanded Scotland - a feeble, beatable shadow of the side which denied Wales a place in two World Cups - or more courageously, England.

"To get one of the home countries would be superb," John Hartson said. "You know who I would like. Just look at where I'm playing football at the moment [Glasgow]."

Sod's law, or Jones' law, will probably ensure that Wales end up in Seville rather than Scotland, and the Celtic striker admitted: "There's lots to fear. There are some tremendous sides out there."

Hartson said few teams, whatever their reputation, would relish coming to Cardiff, but the Millennium Stadium will only be truly intimidating if Wales perform as they did against Italy in October. The stadium announcer urged Wednesday's crowd to "believe in Wales" but on the pitch Wales looked like they needed to believe in themselves.

Finland had 15 shots to two by Wales and forced twice the number of corners. Deciding which side deserves to win by totalling the number of shots is a fairly crude method of calculation, but the lingering regret voiced by Mark Hughes, that his team had missed a chance to go top of the group, was tempered by the realisation that a patched-up Welsh side might have been thrashed.

"I don't think we did enough to win," Hartson added. "Hopefully, next time we'll have a full-strength squad because when we've beaten the likes of Germany and Italy we've been at full strength. I'm not taking anything away from the boys who've played here, but we need our best XI if we're going to win games."

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