Less than 24 hours after Craig Bellamy had rounded Gianluigi Buffon and passed the ball into an empty Italian net, you could buy T-shirts proclaiming Wales as the best team in Britain. They are not, and could not have claimed to be since the 1930s, but walking out of the Millennium Stadium into the sound of the overflowing bars of Cardiff on Wednesday night, it felt like it.
The defeat of Italy was proclaimed as the best result achieved by a Welsh team since the world champions, Germany, were beaten 1-0 in 1991. It probably surpassed that performance by Terry Yorath's side. Any team can lose by a single goal, but Italy might have conceded four at the Millennium Stadium; Ryan Giggs struck the crossbar while Bellamy had a second goal disallowed on dubious grounds. As their coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, admitted, Italy were outplayed by a side who can boast the pace of Bellamy, the craft of Giggs and the skill of Simon Davies, who has discovered the priceless knack of scoring from midfield.
"From where I was watching at left-back it was a joy to see," said the Wales captain, Gary Speed. "Every time we go forward, we look like we are going to score. They must be a nightmare to play against and when they are flying like this, we feel we can beat anybody in the world."
Now, as the Wales manager Mark Hughes pointed out on Wednesday night, they need to hold their nerve, not against the best team in the world but one of the most remote; Azerbaijan. Should they win in Baku next month, Wales will find themselves five points ahead of Italy in third place in Group Nine. In this context, Yugoslavia, who overcame Finland 2-0 in Belgrade on Wednesday, look the biggest long-term threat to Welsh ambitions of qualifying for a major championship finals for the first time since 1958. "I saw Yugoslavia at the weekend and they looked a very strong, gifted side," said Hughes. "They will be a threat to Italy as well and I wouldn't write the Italians off; here they were up against a side determined to win. Desire gives you an extra four or five yards and there was a willingness to get the job done, otherwise what we achieved in Helsinki would be for nothing."
It was the 2-0 win over Finland, rather than the more celebrated 1-0 friendly victory over Germany in May that Hughes cites as the moment his side believed they might achieve something significant in a group where they had been expected merely to make up the numbers. It may not be coincidence that Wales' upswing has coincided with Hughes' decision to become Wales' full-time manager and on the evidence of the last nine months none of the British or Irish managers has a more secure job.
Hughes would not be drawn on what is an unanswerable question, whether this team is better than the boys of 1958 or indeed the 1976 side that reached the last eight of the European Championship.
However, he did point out that his team were now composed almost entirely of players who plied their trade in the top flight. Of the team that started against Italy, only Cardiff's Danny Gabbidon was not part of the Premiership and yet he gave an impressive and mature display that contrasted favourably with Alessandro Nesta, who has arguably not been the same defender since he asked to be substituted during Lazio's 5-1 defeat in the Rome derby last season.
As midfielder Robbie Savage said: "I have John Hartson in front of me and Ryan Giggs, Craig Bellamy and Simon Davies alongside. It gives me so many more options."
Wales' unbeaten record in 2002
Wales 1 Argentina 1
13 February, friendly, Cardiff
(Wales scorer: Bellamy 34]
Wales 0 Czech Republic 0
27 March, friendly, Cardiff
Wales 1 Germany 0
14 May, friendly, Cardiff
Croatia 1 Wales 1
21 August, friendly, Zagreb
Finland 0 Wales 2
7 Sept, Euro 2004 qualifier, Helsinki
(Hartson 30, Davies 72}
Wales 2 Italy 1
16 Oct, Euro 2004 qualifier, Cardiff
(Davies 11, Bellamy 70}
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