Wales fight for pride against Bulgarian dazzle

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Nobody can argue that Vinnie Jones has failed to make an immediate impact with his adopted country, for whom tonight's European Championship qualifying tie against Bulgaria in Cardiff marks his debut on the international stage.

Jones is already said to have upset a weekend dinner party, and yesterday it was the turn of the Welsh captain, Barry Horne, to be left licking his wounds.

Having named the Jones boy in his squad, Wales's manager, Mike Smith, was always going to find it difficult to avoid putting him straight into a side which is on its knees, after suffering crushing defeats in Moldova and Georgia. Initially it seemed thatGary Speed, richly talented but still to flower in his country's red shirt, would have to give way, but a back injury that has been troubling Horne provided an opportunity for a desperate manager.

Jones, the Wimbledon enforcer, is one of two changes to a team that has to win tonight to revive its qualifying prospects. At 35 and newly appointed as the Cardiff City player-coach, Mark Aizlewood returns for his first appearance in 14 months. In Horne '

s absence, Ian Rush will take the captain's armband.

Horne travelled yesterday to the team's headquarters in Newport after treatment, sounding confident about his chances of leading them out: "I am fine now, no problems at all," he said. "I have missed the training sessions, but I don't think that will matter because I have played enough games for my country to know the system we will adopt."

But Smith saw it differently, arguing: "We have a big dilemma with Barry. He has missed four days' work with us and while he may have a part to play, I have left him out of the starting line-up."

The Watford-born Jones claims his place in that line-up, which, with Aizlewood back as sweeper and Mark Hughes restored to midfield, shows a reversion to the formation favoured by Terry Yorath, the former Wales manager, who has been loudest among those critical of the selection of Jones, a player of undoubted heart but limited skill, who owes his qualification to a Welsh grandfather and his fame to acts of infamy.

The latest in a catalogue of controversies has brought a complaint to the Welsh FA from patrons of a Cardiff restaurant, who claimed that Jones aimed obscenities at them as he was dining with Hughes and Rush.

Victory is imperative for the Welsh, but it is asking a great deal against opponents who have a sense of purpose and achievement, having beaten both Argentina and Germany on their way to the World Cup semi-finals. Nine of the team that eventually fell toItaly in the summer are expected to start at the Arms Park.

Even before Vinnie's arrival, Welsh teams never lacked for motivation, but long gone are the days when passion and pride carried the day at this level. The communist overthrow in Bulgaria opened the borders to Europe and opened minds to a more sophisticated way of playing. The result was shown to dazzling effect in America. But Rush remains optimistic saying that, while Bulgaria have the superior individuals, "as a team we are better than them."

He added: "It's good that we are back at the Arms Park because we feel we can beat anybody there as we have proved against Germany and Belgium in recent years."

WALES: Southall (Everton); Aizlewood (Cardiff), Phillips (Nottingham Forest), Coleman (Crystal Palace), Melville (Sunderland), Bowen (Norwich), Jones (Wimbledon), Hughes (Manchester United), Speed (Leeds), Saunders (Aston Villa), Rush (Liverpool).

BULGARIA (probable): Mikhailov (Levski); Kiriakov (CSKA), Ivanov (Neuchatel Xamax), Tzvetanov (Levski), Yordanov (Sporting Lisbon), Yankov (Real Valladolid), Kostadinov (La Corruna), Stoichkov (Barcelona), Penev (Valencia), Lechkov (Hamburg), Balakov (S p orting Lisbon).

Referee: L Sundell (Sweden).