Wales pin hopes on Hartson for crucial game in Italy

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The Independent Football

Mark Hughes walked into the room at the Vale of Glamorgan Hotel, making a wry joke that usually when he has got into bed at four in the morning, it has been on the back of a very good night.

The flight from Belgrade which landed at Cardiff in the dead hours of yesterday morning would have been a very long way from enjoyable for the Wales manager, who for the first time since this European Championship qualifying campaign began, has had to endure the sting of criticism.

After the 1-0 defeat by Serbia and Montenegro it came from several quarters; from John Toshack, who can boast of having taken Real Madrid to win La Liga and from Kevin Ratcliffe, who took Shrewsbury Town into the Conference.

The thrust of their argument was that Wales had been too content to smother the Serb midfield in the Red Star stadium and take the draw that would have guaranteed them at least a play-off place. According to Toshack, Wales were "lulled into a false sense of security", adding: "If we had gone in with a little bit more ambition, we could have won. There were inroads there for people to make."

Toshack's comments found an echo in the Welsh dressing-room, where Craig Bellamy, who was surprisingly ineffectual in Belgrade, commented: "We could have done a lot more going forward and I include myself. We did not do enough before they scored."

Since beginning his transformation of Welsh football, Hughes has had little time for Toshack and yesterday he mounted a robust defence of a display, which if unspectacular, was solid and professional against a team littered with Champions' League participants.

"Criticism?" he said with a raised eyebrow and a hint of steel in his voice. "Really. Of us being cautious away from home in a place like Serbia. Are we supposed to go out from the start to try to win it? I have to say I can't understand the direction of that at all.

"We got to the 73rd minute in control of a difficult away fixture. It would have been stupid at that stage to try to go gung-ho and throw away the good work. If we'd have scored first, I think the Serbians would have given up to be honest, particularly after half-time when we had our best spell."

Everything now funnels towards San Siro, where the Italians, according to their manager, Giovanni Trapattoni, "will have to win at all costs". Hughes, however, is hopeful that this time he will have a fit John Hartson, who because of the way Wales use a target man, is probably more important to his side than Ryan Giggs.

There are only a dozen days remaining before Hughes takes his side on an aeroplane once more, this time to Milan. Hartson has only three games to prove he has recovered from a calf injury and if the weekend's match at Partick is too soon, Hughes is hoping Celtic's 4-0 victory in their Champions' League qualifier with MTK Budapest will give Martin O'Neill an opportunity to play his talisman in the second leg next week. Wales, however, no longer have that kind of cushion.