Hughes still confident despite loss of Hartson

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The Independent Football

If any man could be said to be a talisman for the 10-match unbeaten run which propelled Wales to the edge of qualification for the European Championship, it is John Hartson, who started every one of the games which transformed Mark Hughes' side.

Tomorrow, against Serbia and Montenegro, however, the Wales manager will have to do without the Celtic striker, who has been incapacitated with a back injury that forced him out of the Uefa Cup final and to which has now been added a calf strain. Nathan Blake, who played the last half-hour of Wolverhampton's miserable Premiership debut at Blackburn, will take his place alongside Craig Bellamy.

Blake has not started a Wales international since June 2001 when a very different side - in the middle of putting together the longest winless sequence in the principality's history - played in Ukraine. "Losing John has been a big blow for us," said Hughes, who will also have to do without Fulham's Andy Melville in central defence. "I was hopeful he would make it for Belgrade but, obviously, I had been getting the wrong messages from Celtic.

"When I spoke to him, I discovered he had not done as much work as I thought he had. He had only trained for two days and there was no way he could start the game in Serbia."

When the draw for Group Nine was made, the encounter in the Red Star Stadium looked fairly awkward. However, Serbia and Montenegro, who went under the name of Yugoslavia when the fixtures were compiled, have proved lame dark horses. Twin failures to beat Azerbaijan triggered the resignation of their coach, Dejan Savicevic, and the end of any realistic hopes of making it to Portugal.

Savicevic's replacement, Ilija Petkovic, may have persuaded the PSV Eindhoven striker, Mateja Kezman, to end his boycott of the national side but he argues that the chief purpose of tomorrow's match is to "restore motivation and self-confidence" rather than pick up points.

Should Hughes engineer a fifth successive victory, it will leave his country five points clear of the Italians and needing to avoid defeat in the San Siro in Milan next month to be almost certain of qualification for a major finals for the first time since 1958. "Everybody outside the squad has been focusing on the Italians but we know the game against Serbia is far bigger," said Hughes.

"It is easily the biggest match since I became manager and it could have a massive bearing on our future," said a man whose normal practice has been to avoid rash verbal hostages to fortune. "Football in Wales has never been on such a high before," he added. "We have to keep it there and that makes the match in Serbia of incredible importance.

"There are more and more kids in the street wearing Welsh shirts. They believe in us now and that's why Wednesday night in Belgrade could be the making of Welsh football for many years to come."

* The Northern Ireland defender and former captain Gerry Taggart has retired from international football. The 32-year-old Leicester City centre-half won 51 caps for his country.

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