Wales at the point of no return

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The Independent Online
If you wanted to find an image to represent Wales's hopes of reaching the World Cup finals, there were few better than the aftermath of the Five Nations' Championship. As the last rugby supporters left Cardiff Arms Park, workmen hastily moved in to wrench seats from the outdated ground.

The stands will be demolished this summer to make way for the new Millennium Stadium; the Dutch beat the bulldozers to it when it came to the national football team.

Tonight Wales face Belgium in a farewell to Arms that will be muted by the swift seat work of the constructors. If they had a good chance of qualification, Cardiff would be bubbling with supporters and interest. But the empty spaces will tell their own story. A reduced capacity will watch a team reduced to hoping longshots will come in.

Even if the Welsh win tonight they will need to repeat their success in Belgium and Turkey in their last two matches in Group Seven, and as they were walloped 7-1 by the Netherlands in their last away match, no one is holding his or her breath. There is a hope Wales will be in France in the summer of 1998 just as there is a hope the Liberal Democrats will form a new government after the general election.

"This is a last chance for us," John Hartson, who will hope to line up alongside Mark Hughes in the Welsh attack, agreed: "We know we're struggling to go to the World Cup if we don't get the three points. They had a bad result against Northern Ireland [a 3-0 defeat at Windsor Park], and if they're vulnerable at the moment, we've got to capitalise on that."

Bobby Gould, the manager, will choose between Hartson, Dean Saunders and Nathan Blake to be Hughes' foil, although his biggest dilemma could be at the opposite end of the field. Wales have kept successive clean sheets against Turkey and the Republic of Ireland with a sweeper system, but the downside to that is they have also failed to score.

Against that, Gary Speed has impressed Gould at the centre of a back three and is likely to retain that role with Kit Symons and either Robbie Page or Karl Reddy alongside and Mark Pembridge and Clayton Blackmore as the wing-backs. The option to push the Everton player forward can always be exercised later in the game.

Belgium, who have never won in Cardiff, have two matches in hand on Wales regardless of the outcome tonight, so a draw would probably be satisfactory, particularly as they have problems - not least the 3-0 defeat at home by the Dutch in December. They also arrive in Wales with a new coach, George Leekens, and with what appears to be a patched up side.

Not that this, nor the defeat by Northern Ireland, has diminished Leekens' confidence. "Listen," he said yesterday. "I have a new look team with inexperienced players. If I start having doubts, it would leave a bad impression."

Leekens' defence will be without Newcastle's Philippe Albert and Anderlecht's Olivier Doll, but more importantly Luc Nilis will also be missing. Speed had first-hand experience of the PSV Eindhoven striker last year when he demolished Leeds at Elland Road in the Uefa Cup, and although his scoring record for his country is not as prolific, many of Belgium's attacks flow through him.

His loss will not be easily compensated for, although Belgium's veteran defender, Franky Van Der Elst, who has been capped 70 times, claims Belgium will still be stronger than Wales. Ryan Giggs, he said, is the only home player with more talent than the visitors. And as for Mark Hughes, he added: "I've played four times against him and he has scored just once. He doesn't frighten me."

Which, if Van Der Elst recovers from a groin injury, should make their first challenge tonight, interesting.