Wales vs Israel: Gareth Bale and Co need just three points from their final two matches

Wales have only been to a major tournament once before

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The Independent Football

They couldn’t, could they? Fail, that is, to become only the second Welsh side ever to qualify for a major tournament; not with a maximum three points required from home games against Israel and Andorra, who they have beaten away, plus the bonus ball of a visit to Bosnia?

Cliff Jones, flying winger from the 1958 World Cup, does not want to think such a thing is possible, even given the past dramatic failures to emulate his own team of 57 years ago.

He prefers to believe that confirmation will come as early as this evening at the Cardiff City Stadium, earned by many of the qualities that distinguished the red dragons of his day. “They’re a bunch of lads with different personalities but they’re all mates and they’ve taken that onto the field, in a very similar way to 1958,” he said. “The team spirit is huge, just like it was then.”

If there is one who stands above the rest from each of the two eras, the 80-year-old Jones draws a line at putting Gareth Bale ahead of, or even on par with, the great John Charles, as some were tempted into doing amid the euphoria of last Thursday’s crucial 1-0 victory in Cyprus.

Bale’s header for the only goal was, he concedes, “a John Charles type” before dismissing comparisons between what the two have achieved.

“Not yet, not yet. I haven’t seen Gareth playing centre-half yet! When people ask what was John’s best position I tell them I don’t know, only that he was the best centre-forward I’ve ever seen and the best centre-half as well. And plenty of Juventus supporters who called him their best ever foreign player would agree.

“Gareth for me doesn’t seem the same player for Real Madrid as when he puts the red shirt on. He seems to be overshadowed a bit by Cristiano  Ronaldo. Gareth’s the best free-kick taker they’ve got, for instance, but everything has to go through Ronaldo.”

None of this is meant in any way to denigrate Bale, although Jones is not alone is wanting to see credit spread around a team that has not conceded a goal from open play in seven qualifying matches. “Ashley Williams has been a fantastic leader, and what a goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey is. You look down the spine of the team and there’s Hennessey, Williams, Aaron Ramsey, who is terrific in midfield, then Bale and Hal Robson-Kanu up front, who is so strong and runs all day.”

It has all been an extraordinary turnaround from when Chris Coleman was appointed in January 2012, losing his first four games, of which the fourth, a 6-1 humiliation in Serbia, could conceivably have been his last. Dropping outside the top 80 in Fifa’s rankings, Wales have been on an upward trajectory ever since, reaching a record high of ninth last week and now eyeing the surreal prospect of fourth place in the world with victory over Israel tonight.

It is at this point, perhaps, that heads should be removed from the clouds and feet return quickly to the ground. Coleman is doing his best on that score, against the odds. Jones, also a Swansea boy, who played for the local club when they were still the Town before joining Spurs and becoming part of the 1961 Double team, believes a lot of credit is due to him, even if those who came before him like John Toshack began the process of bringing through a group of talented youngsters.

This time the coverage and consequently the pressure is rather greater. Furthermore the Principality is in the unusual position of expecting at least as much from its football team as its rugby heroes, who face a daunting task in their World Cup pool.

Given the record of previous late collapses in qualifying for tournaments like the World Cups of 1986 and 1994, plus Euro 2004, it is just as well that this time there are three games left to get over the line.