Hughes' men live up to renewed expectations

By Ken Jones
Sunday 12 January 2014 05:25
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Anyone who has followed the course of Welsh football since 1958, when the national team made its only appearance in the finals of a major championship, cannot fail to be impressed by recent developments in the Principality.

The team put together by Mark Hughes falls considerably short of that which included such notables as John Charles, Ivor Allchurch and Cliff Jones, but recent results have brought much hope for the future.

The history of Welsh football is far more significant than just one purple patch that happened to coincide with an explosion of talent in the Swansea area. Wales won the now defunct Home Championship twice during the 30s, sharing it on three other occasions.

There have been some pretty good players since 1958 too, if not in enough numbers to mount a consistent challenge to Europe's better teams.

As for the idea that football in Wales has always run a poor second to rugby, attendances at home league games played by Cardiff City and the-then Swansea Town in the 50s consistently exceeded those for club rugby games.

Of course, it suits the purpose of Hughes to promote the idea that football in his homeland may be about to be raised to a level never before experienced. The victory in Finland last month set Wales up nicely in their qualifying group for the 2004 European Championships, making last night's visit of Italy to the wonderful Millennium Stadium all the more tasty.

Walking to the game you could sense that air of expectancy that once preceded international matches at Ninian Park no matter how powerful the opposition.

Italy might have Del Piero, Cannavaro and Nesta, but Giggs, Bellamy and Davies can hold up their heads in any company.

Since the Welsh defence isn't up to the team's attacking potential it was personally feared that the Italians would have a distinct edge when play was around the Welsh penalty area, but this was dispelled by a series of bright interceptions and solid work when necessary.

Italy weren't about to take any risks and it was Wales who made the early running with Simon Davies and Craig Bellamy doing plenty of inventive work along the right flank.

Bellamy twice got in behind the defence and when another opening was engineered in the 11th minute it brought Wales a goal that almost raised the closed roof of the Millennium Stadium.

Davies began the move himself and then moved on to a return pass from Bellamy to beat the Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon with a low angled shot into the far corner.

Although Del Piero showed enough of his class to keep the Welsh defence constantly alert it was home players who stood out most in the lively proceedings.

John Hartson fought bravely at the sharp end of attack, laying the ball off neatly and if Ryan Giggs had been in the mood for a more consistent contribution the Italians might have found themselves in deeper trouble. As it was a deflected free kick brought Del Piero an equaliser.

Wales took up the initiative in the second half, making better use of Bellamy's pace and the Newcastle man put his country ahead again with 19 minutes left to play outpacing the defence before rounding the goalkeeper to find an empty net. It was splendid stuff, ultimately one of the great Welsh victories.

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