This generation of Welsh players, great Welsh players, have poured their energy, time, heart, and careers into taking their country to a first World Cup in 64 years.
They’ve managed to achieve it. But as this tournament has unfolded and with Wales now two matches in with a solitary point to show for it, exit at the group stage beckons barring some sort of miracle from Group B’s final matches. And miracle is no understatement.
A shocking opening 45 minutes against the United States in their opener could have been put down to poor selection choices from manager Rob Page – who admitted after the 1-1 draw that he got the decision not to start Kieffer Moore wrong – though an improved second half performance following the forward’s introduction and a penalty from Gareth Bale somewhat masked their deficiencies.
They came into Friday’s match with Iran with optimism, in the knowledge that they’d be playing a team who themselves were better than their first group showing. But what we saw at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium was a reality check.
30 degree heat didn’t work in Wales’ favour, but we’ve seen a noticeable lack of energy in the centre of the pitch accompany questionable choices in selection in both matches – day or night. Both USMNT and Iran have now exposed a distinctively absent central midfield in which Ethan Ampadu is expected to stop waves of swift counter attacks.
Aaron Ramsey and Harry Wilson have been the two added pieces of the trident in both matches, though neither offer any additional protection to the 22-year-old Ampadu, who valiantly tried his best to stem the tide. Page’s choice to field the same trio in each match to get on the front foot and create has backfired and Wales are paying the price.
Joe Allen’s fitness has been a point of concern for the duration of the tournament and the months before it, but he was only ready to play the final 15 minutes and contributed to the two late goals Iran scored to take a 2-0 win. His tenacity in the centre has been missed but with consistent fitness issues and age catching up, you have to wonder if former levels will ever be reached.
Bale’s penalty on Monday reinforced his status as one of the most clutch players to ever play the game, but his inability to get involved here was further proof that his star power is fading. It was a question of retirement if Wales failed to make the tournament in the first place and those questions are bound to surface again in the coming days.
Iran and the US have shown how to press from the front, and Wales do not have it in their locker.
And Wayne Hennessey, one of Bale’s closest friends, went out of the international stage in a blaze of glory with a red card following a challenge echoing Harald Schumacher at the 1982 World Cup over 40 years ago.
This has been a generation of Wales players who have achieved things their fans could never have dreamed of – two European Championships and a World Cup in the last eight years were unthinkable before 2016. But their lack of energy and physical application over their two World Cup matches so far begs the question of just how many of this team are writing their final chapter in Welsh red.
Page batted away questions on the future of Ramsey and Bale, pointing to the upcoming “local derby” for England, but they will come around soon. Tuesday’s match will be a time to concentrate on finally putting their best foot forward at this tournament, but many will be reflecting on what comes next after the final whistle blows on their time in Qatar.