Wales need flying start to reach final goal

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The Independent Online

John Toshack last night set his Wales squad a twin challenge: to defeat one of the world's leading sides on their own patch and to fulfil his remaining ambition of leading his country to the finals of a major tournament for the first time in 50 years.

To the Wales manager, who starts his first full qualifying campaign with a testing Euro 2008 fixture against the Czech Republic in Teplice tonight, only by achieving the first half of the equation is the second - "the target that spurs me on" - ever likely to happen.

Prior to the World Cup, Fifa, international football's governing body, ranked the Czechs as the second-best team on the planet. They proved to be only third-best in their group, yet even in a post-Pavel Nedved transitional state, Toshack views Karel Bruckner's team as the type of opposition Wales must overcome.

"We're out of Pot 5 (the fifth of seven ranks of seeded countries), and not many come from there to qualify," he said at the Welsh HQ in an overcast Czech capital. "I never go into anything thinking we aren't going to win it. But if we're to do it, we have to come away to one of the top nations and win."

Precedents are scarce. In 1998, Bobby Gould's team won in Denmark. However, Toshack went back to 1975, when he was in the side that beat the then-powerful Hungary in Budapest. His captain, Ryan Giggs, was reduced to citing a 1-0 defeat in Austria last year when they did everything but score.

Bruckner has lost Nedved, Karel Poborsky and Vladimir Smicer to international retirement and Milan Baros to injury. Last month's 3-1 loss to Serbia suggested a World Cup hangover, and Toshack sees a Czech top-two finish as far from a formality in a group that features Germany, the Republic of Ireland and Slovakia.

Wales' main concern is their lack of goals; they have scored in just one of the past four games. Creating chances is not a problem, as the 0-0 draw with Bulgaria showed, though finishing is. Toshack may opt for a counter-attacking policy, with five at the back and Giggs playing off a lone striker, Craig Bellamy.

"Maybe I'm approaching this game in a conservative manner," he teased, aware of the Czech media. "But as the group goes on, you'll see the type of football we want to play. I'm very excited about the future."

Czech Republic (4-4-2; probable): Cech (Chelsea); Ujfalusi (Fiorentina), Kovac (Spartak Moscow), Rozenhal (Paris St-Germain), Jankulovski (Milan); Sionko (Rangers), Galasek (Nuremberg), Rosicky (Arsenal), Plasil (Monaco); Stajner (Hannover 96), Koller (Monaco).

Wales (5-3-1-1; probable): Jones (QPR); Delaney (Aston Villa), Gabbidon, Collins (both West Ham), Nyatanga (Derby) or Ledley (Cardiff), Ricketts (Hull); S Davies (Everton), Fletcher (Crystal Palace), Robinson (Norwich); Giggs (Manchester United); Bellamy (Liverpool).

Referee: J Eriksson (Sweden).

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