Wales and Scotland start planning for future

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The Independent Football

On the face of it, the match between Wales and Scotland at the Millennium Stadium tonight looks nothing more than a meaningless friendly between two Euro 2004 failures.

Both Celtic countries did well to reach the play-offs before falling at the final hurdle. While the Scots were catching a heavy cold in Amsterdam, the Welsh, rather dubiously in light of Yegor Titov's positive drug test, were being dumped out of the competition by the Russians in Cardiff.

Unless Wales manage to persuade European football's governing body, Uefa, to expel Russia from the finals through their next appeal hearing on 19 March, neither country would seem to have anything to play for except pride as the Welsh meet their oldest opponents for the first time since 1997.

But three months on from play-off disappointment, the match has assumed a certain significance. World Cup preparation is now the buzz phrase emanating from both camps with Wales relishing the prospect of playing the only British team not in their qualifying group. As both squads have been depleted by injury, managers Mark Hughes and Berti Vogts are keen to blood one or two promising youngsters.

The Welsh have not won in seven games stretching over almost a year. They lost to the United States and then suffered three defeats in their last four Euro 2004 qualifiers before drawing 0-0 and losing 1-0 in the play-off matches against Russia.

"The bad run doesn't play on our minds but obviously we need to get back to winning ways," Hughes said. "We're missing a few players like Hartson, Bellamy and Koumas but the Scotland match is a good exercise and we'll get a lot out of it."

The one surprise inclusion in the Welsh squad is Cardiff City's 23-year-old winger Paul Parry, who, two months ago, was plying his trade with Hereford in the Nationwide Conference.

"I saw him do very well against West Brom at the weekend," Hughes said. "He was very direct and positive and he didn't show any fear. There's a possibility that he could play from the start.

"It's an important game because it's preparation - whether for Euro 2004 or the World Cup qualifiers in September. We will be ready to take our place in Portugal if Russia are thrown out - I think we've got a good case."

Realistically, though, Hughes must know that Wales have little chance of going to the finals - a view shared by Scotland's manager. "I understand that the Welsh must fight to win a place in the finals but I know the rules," Vogts said. "You don't ban a whole team from a tournament - only one or two players. There is a small chance but I don't think Wales will be successful - in my opinion they won't be reinstated."

Like tonight's opponents, Scotland will be missing key players - such as Barry Ferguson and Neil McCann - through injury and yesterday Kevin Kyle was sent home with a bad foot to join Stevie Crawford on the list of absentee strikers. But Vogts has confidence in the remaining squad members and, in particular, his younger players.

"I still have a lot of options up front," Vogts insisted. "James McFadden and Paul Dickov played against Holland and also Kenny Miller played against Germany. The young boy, Paul Gallagher, is also in the squad and he's done very well for the Under-21s and Blackburn. There's a lot of potential and although they need time, we have time enough."

Tonight's match will inevitably revive memories of the last time the two countries met in a meaningful match in Cardiff - especially for Hughes. He scored as Wales took the lead in a 1986 World Cup qualifier at Ninian Park only for the late Davie Cooper to equalise with a controversial penalty.

But the game will always be remembered for the death of the Scotland manager Jock Stein, who suffered a heart attack in the dug-out as his players secured the point to take them to Mexico.