Hughes grateful for chance to take it easy

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The Independent Football

There is anxiety in Wales this morning, a horrible, pit-of-the-stomach fear that they will be humiliated, consigned to the also-rans, while having to endure an English triumph that will stick in the collective craw.

So much for the Rugby World Cup, although for once in Mark Hughes' reign as Wales manager, rugby has succeeded in pushing football off the back page of the Western Mail, the principality's morning newspaper. This, however, is largely due to Hughes' success.

There is nothing much riding on the final Group Nine fixture with Serbia and Montenegro this evening. Wales have qualified for the play-offs, although they will not make the European Championships automatically unless Italy drop points at home to Azerbaijan and Wales beat Serbia. When asked if he expected a shock in Reggio Calabria, the Wales captain, Gary Speed, said bluntly that he was not. Thoughts and emotions are instead funnelling towards next month's play-offs and Monday's draw.

Unlike his England counterpart, Sven Goran Eriksson, Hughes has had one of the most relaxed build-ups to an international he can recall. There have been no battles with Uefa, European football's governing body, over how soon he could call up his players as there were before the journeys to Azerbaijan and Serbia. There has been nobody arrested because of a night-club fracas, as Craig Bellamy was seven months ago.

"Before each game, it seems to be the side issues we have had to deal with," he said. "We are going in to the last game having achieved something, whereas in the past we've gone in to the last group game hoping we will be able to come out with something. This time, we've done it with one match to spare and we may yet be on the verge of something great."

Hughes sympathises with the pressure the misdemeanours of footballers place on men like Eriksson, who has spent the week torn between his team and his employers. "Everybody has to understand the vast media coverage. Football is a 24-hour job. You are always on call, you can't switch off and you can't act like people who aren't in the media spotlight. Sometimes, people in football have forgotten that.

"As a manager, you have to trust the players but it has to be their responsibility. They must remember who they are in society and how society regards them." As for England's threatened players' strike over Rio Ferdinand's omission, Hughes commented simply: "It is difficult to prepare an international team at any time without these distractions."

The main question for the Wales manager is whether to risk Andy Melville and Mark Pembridge who are both one booking away from being suspended for the first leg of the play-offs. Given the absence of both Simon Davies and Robbie Savage from his midfield, Hughes will probably risk Pembridge but not Melville, just as Eriksson played David Beckham but not Sol Campbell in similar circumstances against Liechtenstein on the grounds that centre-backs are more likely to get themselves booked.

If this is to be simply a glorified preparation for the play-offs, then Serbia will provide no mean opponents. They have held Italy to draws in both Naples and Belgrade and beaten Wales, and yet they failed to make it to Portugal because they could not fashion a win against Azerbaijan.

For Wales this should be a celebration of a remarkable journey in front of another capacity crowd at the Millennium Stadium. "We are probably one of the most supported international teams in the world, which is a wonderful tribute," said Hughes. "We've made not only an impact in Wales but Europe, too. Most of Europe is aware of the progress we've made. There has been a lot of focus on the rugby World Cup in Wales but we in football have held our own."

Wales: (probable, 4-5-1): Jones; (Southampton), Edwards,Delaney (both Aston Villa), Gabbidon (Cardiff), Speed; Bellamy (both Newcastle), Oster (Sunderland), Robinson (Portsmouth), Pembridge (Fulham), Giggs; (Manchester United), Hartson (Celtic).

Serbia and Montenegro: (probable, 4-3-1-2): Jevric (Vitesse Arnhem); Cirkovic (Partizan), Gavrancic (Dynamo Kiev), Bunjevcevic (Tottenham), N Djordjevic (Partizan); Mladenovic, Boskovic (both Red Star), Brnovic (Zeta Golubovci); Vukic (Shakhtar Donetsk); Kezman (PSV Eindhoven), Kovacevic (Real Sociedad).

Referee: F Stuchlik (Austria).

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