Wales' preparations for Saturday's away leg of their Euro 2004 play-off against Russia - a match Mark Hughes describes as his country's "most important in nearly 50 years" - suffered yet another set-back yesterday when Mark Pembridge joined the Principality's ever-lengthening injury list.
Pembridge is struggling with a calf problem and will almost certainly miss the trip to Moscow. He is having intensive treatment at Wales' Cardiff base, but his manager has all but given up hope of seeing him board the plane tomorrow.
Pembridge's injury troubles follow those of his regular midfield partners, Simon Davies and Robbie Savage. Davies was sent back to Tottenham for further treatment on his groin problem and is set to miss both legs, but at least Savage seems to be recovering from his slight hamstring pull. His combative qualities will be much needed.
Hughes' midfield is not the only area for concern. The Reading defender Adrian Williams has a twisted knee and will be out for several weeks. Also struggling is Robert Page, who is now back at Sheffield United to recover from a chipped ankle bone. Page is definitely out for Saturday, but could return for next Wednesday's second leg in Cardiff.
The double defensive blow means a recall for Kit Symons, Crystal Palace's recently appointed caretaker manager. Symons had initially opted to miss the play-off matches to work with his players at struggling Palace, but was happy to rearrange his plans. "Mark rang and I joined the squad late on Monday night," said Symons. "I love being involved with Wales and these are two of the biggest matches for many years."
That much is true. Wales are potentially just 180 minutes away from their first major tournament since the 1958 World Cup finals. No wonder, then, Hughes is so frustrated. "It is something like 13 months since I was able to field my first team," he said, "but these days the chances of players avoiding injury are remote. It does not make my job any easier, and the people who are left in the squad will have to step in and make things happen."
Top of that list is Ryan Giggs. The man widely regarded as the best left winger to grace the Premiership has won every honour with Manchester United, but has yet to play in a World Cup or a European Championship. With Newcastle's Craig Bellamy sidelined after knee surgery, much of the creative impetus will fall on the 29-year-old. "We are all going to have to be at our best because we are the underdogs," he said. "But, then, we go into most of our matches as underdogs anyway, so it will certainly not bother us."Reuse content