Stranzl strangles life out of Wales

Wales 0 - Austria 2
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The Independent Football

The wildly optimistic hopes Wales had nurtured of somehow conjuring World Cup qualification out of their wretched start to Group Six were demolished by a pair of late goals from Austria.

In his first competitive outing since taking over the manager's role last November, John Toshack had warned that the Welsh needed six points from this game in Cardiff and the return in Vienna on Wednesday. Dream over. On the pitch where the same coloured shirts won the nation a historic rugby success seven days previously, Wales rarely looked capable of overcoming a decidedly moderate Austria and fell apart disastrously in the last 10 minutes.

If he sought a challenge, Toshack has certainly found one. Wales have now gone two years without winning anything other than a friendly. If the retirement of seven from the squad since the last defeat, to Poland at home in October, has clearly left them in disarray, this match indicated that a farewell may not be far off either for the likes of John Hartson, while the back line is in dire need of defenders of higher quality than Robert Page and Danny Gabbidon, whose weekly commitment is currently with Championship clubs struggling against relegation.

As Toshack played what he hoped might prove a trump card by bringing on Robert Earnshaw a quarter of an hour from the end (the space of time in which Earnshaw had scored a hat-trick for West Bromwich Albion last week) and removed Simon Davies from midfield, it served only to accelerate the Welsh collapse as Austria found more operating space. "That substitution was not the brightest thing I have ever done," he said. "I have to accept responsibility for that."

It could also be argued that leaving Robbie Savage out of his squad, sparking an announcement of international retirement from the miffed Blackburn man, was not very bright either. The midfield pair of Carls, Robinson and Fletcher, could not offer anywhere near the quality that Savage and Gary Speed provided. Austria's manager Hans Krankl said: "I am very happy about Savage's absence. He is a good, hard player."

Toshack, known as a strong critic of the previous regime under Mark Hughes, was decidedly chastened after such a humiliation. "We were beaten by a better side," he acknowledged. "We made life hard for ourselves with some sloppy passing and were punished for losing balls we should not have lost. It's over for this World Cup. Two points from five games isn't good enough.

"I was under no illusions when I took this job. If we had picked up 12 points from the first four games I wouldn't be here," said the Wales legend, whose previous stint as his country's manager lasted 34 days and one game in 1994.

Until the Vfb Stuttgart midfielder Martin Stranzl settled and started to run proceedings, Wales had looked likely to get something from this game. With Ryan Giggs winning his 50th cap and captaining the side, switching wings and unsettling a none-too-composed Austrian defence, the chances came. One Giggs cross found Robinson unmarked but his header was directed straight at the grateful Helge Payer.

There were other openings, created by Hartson's renowned ability to win things in the air, but it was Hartson himself who squandered the two best opportunities. First he misheaded Mark Delaney's pull-back from the byline when perfectly positioned, then when Fletcher slipped him clear, the striker opted to attempt to dribble round Payer, who knocked the ball away.

Though Austria rarely threatened in the opening half, there were enough dangerous moments to indicate that Gabbidon and Page might not be able to resist something more sustained. Gabbidon's slackness set up Stranzl to shoot into the side netting, while Danny Coyne clung on to Rene Aufhauser's fierce volley.

A moment of Giggs magic after half an hour provided one of the few chances for the home crowd to cheer. Ghosting past his marker, the Manchester United man demanded a reflex save from Payer, perhaps the best of the match.

In the second half, a sedate game suddenly livened up with three quick bookings as Wales pushed forward in search of a goal and Austria exhibited their slickness on the counter-attack.

Though Earnshaw's arrival in the end made no difference, the introduction of Ivica Vastic won the day for Austria. He had been on only three minutes before accepting a slick offering from Christian Mayrleb to rifle a tremendous rising shot past Coyne from outside the area. As Wales slumped and the crowd drifted away, Gabbidon's laxity and Page's slowness to spot it in time opened the way for Stranzl to muscle through and smack a second goal into the roof of the net.