By Phil Blanche, PA
Wales play Austria in a World Cup play-off semi-final in Cardiff on Thursday.
The winners will host Scotland or Ukraine in June to decide a place at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Here, the PA news agency looks at the main talking points as Wales seek to play in football’s biggest tournament for the first time since 1958.
Last chance for Bale?
Football is littered with great players never to have played at a World Cup – Alredo Di Stefano, George Best and George Weah to name but three. Gareth Bale would surely join them should Wales fail to make it to Qatar. Bale would be nearly 37 by the time the 2026 World Cup is hosted by Canada, Mexico and the United States. Bale comes into the Austria game with doubts over his fitness, having played just 77 minutes for Real Madrid since the end of August. He joined up with Wales after Real boss Carlo Ancelotti said he dropped out of Sunday’s El Clasico with Barcelona as he “didn’t feel well”. But the signs are Bale will start against Austria and win his 101st cap.
If we’re honest, Wales could not have been handed a more favourable play-off path to the World Cup. Robert Page’s side avoided big-hitters like Italy, Portugal and Sweden – all of whom are above Wales in the FIFA world rankings – and have the prospect of two home ties to reach Qatar. Wales can take comfort from their excellent record at the Cardiff City Stadium, where they are unbeaten in 11 competitive games – a run stretching back to November 2018. The Dragons have turned the place into a fortress and quickly dismissed the idea of playing at Welsh rugby’s 74,500-capacity Principality Stadium. The players love playing at their Cardiff home and a big atmosphere awaits Austria.
With goalkeeper Danny Ward and striker Kieffer Moore out injured, Wales’ side virtually picks itself, with Page preferring to play three central defenders and utilise the pace and athleticism of Connor Roberts and Neco Williams as wing-backs. The big call for Page is whether he will be conservative or bold in midfield? Does he play two sitters or gamble on risk and reward? If it is the former, then Ethan Ampadu will play alongside Joe Allen with Joe Morrell suspended. The latter sees Aaron Ramsey in a deeper role to free up an attacking spot for the likes of Harry Wilson or Brennan Johnson. Getting this call right could define Wales’ play-off final ambitions.
Rested or rusty?
— Rangers Football Club (@RangersFC) March 20, 2022
Wales have several players short of game time with their respective clubs. As well as Bale, Aaron Ramsey has been on the fringes at Rangers since his January loan move from Juventus. The Wales playmaker has started just three games, but he completed 84 minutes on Sunday when scoring his first Rangers goal in a 2-1 win at Dundee. Wayne Hennessey, set to win his 99th cap in goal, has also been warming the Burnley bench and centre-back Joe Rodon has had a similar time at Tottenham. The good news for Wales is that these players have shrugged off a lack of club action in the past to shine at international level.
Austria have the edge in a fixture first played in 1954, with five wins compared to Wales’ three and two draws. But Wales are unbeaten in the last three games, with Ben Woodburn’s superb strike settling their last contest in September 2017. Austria won the first three meetings – in 1954, 1955 and 1974 – before Arfon Griffiths’ Wrexham winner saw Wales top their 1976 European Championship qualifying group. The two sides shared a 1-1 Vienna friendly draw in 1992, and Austria completed a 2006 World Cup qualifying double inside the space of four days. But Wales won a 2013 Swansea friendly before their games in 2018 World Cup qualifying produced a 2-2 draw in Vienna and a 1-0 Wales victory in Cardiff.