Toshack relies on Earnshaw to lift injury-hit Wales

A little over five years ago, 73,500 crammed into the citadel of the Welsh capital to watch Mark Hughes's resurgent national side beat Azerbaijan 4-0 and so bring Euro 2004 tantalisingly, if cruelly, into focus.

Today, with the same Caspian Sea minnows in town there will be neither the scale of attendance nor the expectancy. But the same hope will still exist in a crowd that may only number 12,000. And so it should, too.

John Toshack's Wales may not contain the likes of Ryan Giggs or Gary Speed, or indeed of Craig Bellamy, Danny Gabbidon and James Collins – the West Ham trio helping to form what Toshack claims is his worst injury list in 30 years of management – but there will be young players on view with the talent to suggest that this could be more than just another doomed attempt to make their first major finals since 1958.

Gareth Bale, Christian Gunter and Joe Ledley will all feature in a side that should win this afternoon, although their big test awaits in Russia next Wednesday.

Robert Earnshaw's D-Day undoubtedly falls today. Not even included in Toshack's original squad, Earnshaw has been called up and stoked up by a manager who has consistently overlooked the diminutive striker. "He knows the onus will be on him to score the goals that give us a good start to the campaign," said Toshack. "He's had his troubles at clubs. This is a good opportunity now for Earnie."

The 27-year-old will take the lone role up front, with Jason Koumas and his box of trickery let loose in behind. Meanwhile, in the centre, Toshack looks set to resist starting Aaron Ramsey, the Arsenal teenager, and going with the limited but experienced duo of Carl Robinson and Carl Fletcher. Toshack is playing safe and that is no wonder.

Anything but victory here and his status will bound to come under scrutiny. Since Berti Vogts took over in April, the Azeri have only beaten Andorra – at home – by the odd goal and last week went down in Iran 1-0. Not the greatest form line, but then nor is losing to a team who have and to escape their war-torn country, as Wales did against Georgia last month.

Wales (probable, 4-4-1-1): Hennessey (Wolves); Gunter (Tottenham), A Williams (Swansea), Morgan (Peterborough), Bale (Tottenham); Simon Davies (Fulham, capt), Robinson (Toronto), Fletcher (Crystal Palace), Ledley (Cardiff City); Koumas (Wigan); Earnshaw (Nottingham Forest).

Wales qualifiers: Today: Azerbaijan (h). Wed 10 Sept: Russia (A). Sat 11 Oct: Lichtenstein ( H). Wed 15 Oct: Germany (A). Sat 28 March: Finland (H). Wed 1 April: Germany (H). Sat 6 June: Azerbaijan (A). Wed 9 Sept: Russia (H). Sat 10 Oct: Finland (A). Wed 14 Oct: Lichtenstein (A).

Comments