Hughes uses experience to help Wales keep cool

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The Independent Online

If World Cup matches were settled by preparation alone, then Wales could already happily pack up their bags and head for home with three points safely secured.

If World Cup matches were settled by preparation alone, then Wales could already happily pack up their bags and head for home with three points safely secured.

Mark Hughes' side embark on their quest to qualify for the World Cup finals for the first time since 1958, having learned the lessons of the difficulties they encountered the last time they visited Azerbaijan.

Two years after their Euro 2004 qualifier here - which Wales won 2-0 - Hughes has virtually a full-strength squad to chose from, although Manchester United's Ryan Giggs (suspension), the Manchester City left-back Ben Thatcher (illness) and the Tottenham midfielder Simon Davies (shin splints) are notable absences.

Since his first trip to the former Soviet Republic, Hughes has slightly modified his plans to cope with an Azeri side enjoying a mini-revival under the Brazilian World Cup winner Carlos Alberto.

"We had quite a few problems here the last time we came out so I was really delighted with the performance and the result in what were difficult circumstances," said the Wales manager. "We had difficulty getting players out here and a club-versus-country row so I was missing a lot of senior players.

"Now we have had the benefit of our experience last time so we can do the things that worked last time and look at the areas we could have done better at and hope any changes have an impact this time around. Added to that we are now a much stronger side than before."

Despite a four-hour time difference, Hughes has kept his squad on British time, meaning breakfast is served at 1pm and the players are encouraged to stay up until 3am local time.

Hughes had also hoped to provide ice jackets to help his players cope with the searing heat before tonight's kick-off, although the supplier failed to come up with the goods.

Wales have bounced back following their disappointing defeat in the Euro 2004 play-off against Russia and go into the game on the back of a five-match unbeaten run.

Their hosts are in a similar purple patch of four matches without a defeat and under Alberto have rediscovered their scoring touch with nine goals in that time.

Although hardly anyone outside the Caspian region expects the home side to cause an upset on the fifth anniversary of Hughes' first game in sole charge - a 2-2 draw in Belarus - he is not showing any complacency. "This will be a difficult game because all the teams are starting a new competition and are full of hope and expectancy," Hughes said.

"Azerbaijan are on a decent run, playing with confidence under a new manager and scoring goals, which is a problem they had before. They are a better side than last time."

Alberto himself rates Hughes' side as "a medium team by European standards." He added: "They are not the grands like France and Spain so the Welsh are not unbeatable opponents and we can get the better of them."

On his illustrious opposite number, who captained Brazil when they triumphed in the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico, Hughes said: "He was one of the great players. He has a lot of respect and brought that with him. It is said that great players sometimes don't make great managers but he has already made a massive difference."

The West Ham defender Andy Melville is the only other injury concern for Hughes, who hopes to have Thatcher back to face Northern Ireland at the Millennium Stadium on Wednesday night. Melville will have a late fitness test on his injured hamstring but hopes to be able to win his 62nd cap for his country.

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