Hughes pledges immediate response

Azerbaijan 1 - Wales 1
Click to follow

A draw against a side ranked 59 places below you may not exactly be cause for celebration, but the Wales manager, Mark Hughes, was in no mood to berate his squad, at least publicly, after their bid to reach Germany 2006 started in thoroughly underwhelming fashion.

The 1-1 stalemate in the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan - who are ranked 116 in the world compared with Wales' 57 - would have been viewed as a disaster before battle commenced. But having conspired to lose their 48th-minute lead, given to them by evergreen midfielder and captain Gary Speed, Wales were eventually breathing a huge sigh of relief to have escaped from her having stretched - albeit unconvincingly - their unbeaten run to six matches.

But, having said that, West Brom's new £3.5m striker Robert Earnshaw nearly wrecked the home fans' celebrations with a late header which was pushed onto a post by goalkeeper Dmitry Kramarenko. In the end the scoreline, thanks to Rashad Sadikhov's second-half shot from 35 yards which caught out the Wolves goalkeeper Paul Jones, was probably fair. Wales did not do enough to win, while the Azeri did enough not to lose.

Anyone hoping the Welsh would soon out impose themselves on one of the former whipping boys of European football was left disappointed. But what at first seemed a poor result could still yet prove valuable.

News of England's surrender of a two-goal lead in Austria put the smiles back on the faces of the Welsh players contemplating an energy-sapping seven-and-a-half hour flight back to Cardiff. And while the overnight journey may have done them few favours physically, ahead of another game on Wednesday, the kick up the backside the result and Hughes will have given the players could serve them well in their upcoming matches.

Northern Ireland are the visitors to the Millennium Stadium this week, fresh from a 3-0 home defeat at the hands of Poland, and Hughes has promised that his players will have learned their lessons by then. "You will see an improvement against Northern Ireland," he pledged. "We have to because we must win our home games. We will pick ourselves up as we have a really big game on Wednesday, a game that we know we have to win. We've no time to feel down, we have to get on with it."

Hughes admitted his side had "got away with it to a certain extent" having been expected to take Carlos Alberto's side to the cleaners for the third time in three meetings.

But in a stadium named after the Azeri linesman who allowed one of Geoff Hurst's three World Cup final goals in 1966, Tofig Bharamov's fellow countrymen did their best to help out the English once again. They may not be so helpful when Sven Goran Eriksson takes a trip to the Caspian Sea-side with his team next month.

The FA's spies John Gorman and Paul Goddard will certainly have reported back that Azerbaijan are no longer there simply to be pushed over, especially on home soil.

"I don't see why they can't cause problems for the other sides," said Hughes. "They are on a decent run themselves at the moment and as long as they keep that confidence anything could happen. They have the ability and technically they are okay. They break quickly and can cause problems for teams, as we found out." Sven, you have been warned.

Azerbaijan (3-5-2): Kramarenko; Agayev, Sadikhov, Hajiyev; Shukurov, M Gurbanov, Huseynov, G Gurbanov, Ponomarev (Gurbanov 83); Aliyev, Kasimov. Substitutes: Nabiev for Shukurov, 68; Mamedov for Huseynov, 72; I Gurbanov for Ponomarev.

Wales (4-4-2): Jones (Wolves); Delaney (Aston Villa), Melville (West Ham), Page (Cardiff), Gabbidon (Cardiff); Koumas (West Brom), Savage (Birmingham City), Speed (Bolton), Pembridge (Fulham); Bellamy (Newcastle United), Hartson (Celtic). Substitutes: Oster (Sunderland) for Pembridge, h-t; Earnshaw (West Brom) for Koumas, 88.

Referee E Trivkovic (Croatia).

Booked: Azerbaijan: Hajiyev, Aliyev. Wales: Delaney.

Man of the match Gabbidon.

Comments