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Gareth Bale's World Cup injury an opportunity for a brave new Wales

Gareth Bale remains the captain and talisman of this Wales team
Gareth Bale remains the captain and talisman of this Wales team
Mark Pitman
EXPERT COLUMNIST

Gareth Bale should have been making his 100th appearance for Wales on Friday evening as his side resume their 2022 FIFA World Cup qualification campaign. They play a difficult fixture against Group E rivals the Czech Republic in Prague.

However, the team's talisman and captain has been ruled out of the current international window with what has been described as a 'significant hamstring tear'.

#GarethBale has been ruled out of World Cup qualifiers against the Czech Republic and Estonia next month with a "significant hamstring tear", Wales boss Robert Page said on Tuesdaysports.ndtv.com/football/garet…

Real Madrid star's revival

The injury is the latest in a long line of setbacks for the Real Madrid star.

He seems to have finally rediscovered the motivation to perform in the Spanish capital following the return of Carlo Ancelotti this season.

During the last international window, Bale showed against Belarus why he remains pivotal to this Wales team. His hat-trick in Kazan ensured that his side would claim a 3-2 victory when the game appeared to be slipping away from them.

Gareth Bale seems to have rediscovered his motivation for playing for Real Madrid
Gareth Bale seems to have rediscovered his motivation for playing for Real Madrid

But despite dominating possession and chances against Estonia in Cardiff a few days later, they could only draw 0-0. This was very much two-points dropped in a qualification campaign that will almost certainly decide if Bale is ever to grace the finals of the World Cup.

Of course, there's a long list of former Wales stars who never even made it to the finals of a major tournament. And Bale can at least reflect on two EURO finals should this one outstanding ambition fail to materialize. Wales qualified for the World Cup for the one and only time back in 1958. They eventually lost to Brazil 1-0 in the quarter-final.

Play-offs the best chance for Wales

Wales are expected to have a second chance at the play-offs regardless of their group form thanks to their undefeated UEFA Nations League campaign. Manager Rob Page can take a lot of pride from the way he saw the competition through to a successful conclusion. His side won the group and earned promotion to League A ahead of the next edition of the tournament.

Page generally impressed with his often unpredictable team selections during that particular campaign. But he appeared to freeze when it came to the EURO finals over the summer. The 4-0 defeat against Denmark in particular exposed a weakness in their ability to make any significant tactical change.

Wales manager Rob Page will be without his captain Gareth Bale this week
Wales manager Rob Page will be without his captain Gareth Bale this week

Wales became predictable as Page named the same and similar starting line-ups. While there were impressive moments of individual brilliance, only the victory over Turkey showed a glimpse of the team spirit. It was this team spirit that had defined the success of reaching the semi-finals of the competition in 2016.

The rare presence of Aaron Ramsey during the finals certainly seemed to force Page's hand when it came to accommodating his obvious talent. The consistent injury problems that have limited his international career have again limited his involvement in this campaign. Even then, there has been more diversity in terms of personnel from Page, but not in his tactical approach.

The return of Aaron Ramsey

Bale will miss upcoming games against the Czech Republic and Estonia. But Ramsey has made himself available for selection despite missing recent Serie A and UEFA Champions League fixtures with Juventus.

Ramsey's commitment to his country has been questioned by sections of the supporters. But Bale's absence this week means he must take over the vacated mantle. Wales need their best players to perform at the top of their game when it comes to challenging for qualification, and Bale and Ramsey headline this list.

Aaron Ramsey's presence will be crucial for Wales without Gareth Bale
Aaron Ramsey's presence will be crucial for Wales without Gareth Bale

On another occasion, Wales would have beaten Estonia last month by a couple of goals and all would have been well with the Red Wall. However, a combination of missed chances and an inspired performance from visiting goalkeeper Karl Hein meant the home side were left frustrated. That emotion quickly fuelled a negative reaction from the crowd as well.

The Red Wall will always be in Wales' corner, but there is a collective desire not to slip back to the underperforming old days. With recent matches, too many traits of the past appear to be resurfacing. Those with a vested interest in the fortunes of the national team have every right to be concerned by the current situation.

Crucial stage of qualification

Wales will hope that Bale can return to fitness ahead of crucial deciding group fixtures against Belarus and Belgium in Cardiff next month. They also hope that Ramsey will remain with the squad for these vital games.

On the immediate face of it, Bale's injury will weaken Wales. But it also offers Page an opportunity to show tactical bravery and change around a system that has become stale. Other players will need to take charge of situations on the field, and it will be interesting to see how the team performs without him.

Wales could make a significant tactical change to compensate for Gareth Bale's injury
Wales could make a significant tactical change to compensate for Gareth Bale's injury

Bale has been the catalyst for the tempo of how Wales have performed throughout the current campaign and during the EURO finals. But this enforced absence provides an opportunity for others to emerge from his shadow.

His frustration when things do not go to plan on the field is clear to see. But taking him out of the side will show just how much his presence influences or intimidates those around him in this generally young squad.

Rob Page and a tactical opportunity

David Brooks has pulled out of the squad through illness. Harry Wilson, Daniel James, Tyler Roberts and Kieffer Moore are available. Together with the recent emergence of Mark Harris, Rubin Colwill, Brennan Johnson and now the elevation of Sorba Thomas, they offer Page a wealth of attacking options.

The majority may still be young, but there is a fearlessness attached to that characteristic. That will see them determined to take on the world in the colors of their country when they are given the chance.

Bale remains the captain and best individual player, but a strong team can still emerge from this setback and thrive without him with the right belief behind them. With Bale available, Wales have become predictable, while Page has become dependent on his talisman to get his team out of trouble.

Wales manager Rob Page as an opportunity to make a brave tactical call this week
Wales manager Rob Page as an opportunity to make a brave tactical call this week

Now Page has the opportunity to prove his doubters wrong. But only his tactical bravery will give him the best chance of success without his captain there to put things right if it all goes wrong.

The delicate situation in Group E means there is no room for error, and this will be Page's biggest test yet.


Edited by Aditya Singh
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