Wales: Arsenal's Ramsey Comes To The Fore With Tottenham's Bale Underperforming
Firstly, let's have a look at the bad. The first half looked typically like the Wales of old. A performance in which we dominated, playing neat, intricate football with absolutely no end product. And as the first half wore on, the worry set in.
Texts exchanged between a friend and I alluded to the fact that we would inevitably dominate and lose. We've been there before as a nation. We all remember the crushing defeat inflicted by Russia at the Millennium Stadium in a game which Wales could and should have won. And when Grant Hanley's massive head put Scotland one up, it felt like the same old story.
For all our endeavour and neat passing, it looked as if the usual defensive frailties had once again reared their ugly head. Boaz Myhill pushed Kenny Miller away, when he really should have been worrying about where the ball might go. Sam Ricketts displayed the classic symptoms of a right-back being played at centre half. His awareness was shocking; he simply wasn't tight enough, letting Hanley sell him a dummy and buying it at a cut price. Ricketts didn't go with him and then Hanley powered the header home.
I'm struggling to see any more bad points. I've been pretty critical of Chris Coleman in the past but I think he got this game pretty spot on. Barring the aforementioned defensive mishap, the back four coped admirably with the Scottish threat. It was particularly pleasing to see young Ben Davies put in a very good performance on the left. The centre backs were, never really, going to be troubled by Kenny Miller. Being a Cardiff fan, Kenny Miller's one season with us was typical of his career. A bright start slowly faded into a masterclass in ineptness with the added bonus of a missed penalty in a crucial shoot out.
Cookie even took the big decision to change Gareth Bale at half time. There's no doubt about how much of an asset the Tottenham winger is at the moment. He is, bar Messi and Ronaldo, the most explosive and exciting footballer in the world. The lead up to the game was punctuated with rumour and talk that he wouldn't be fit for the game. The FAW even took an unprecedented step to tweet that he had been in training on Thursday.
One supposes that Bale's first-half performance stemmed from a dodgy ankle and a virus which kept him out of training early in the week. Perhaps a more metaphorical explanation would be the fact that Bale is completely knackered from carrying Tottenham to fourth place and the hopes of a footballing nation on his back. That said, it looked as if this was one game too far for the next PFA Player of the Season.
It was obvious that he wasn't 100%. He looked jaded and off the pace. But what was Coleman to do? Leave off a player capable that moment of magic that could change the game? I don't ruddy bloody think so, sir. At times, it looked as if it was pass to Bale and he will do something.
At one point, Robson-Kanu put in a dangerous cross that ended up at the edge of the area where Davis passed to Collison who then passed to Bale who then got the shot away. Again, text messages were exchanged. I just think the pressure was too much to place on him when he clearly wasn't fit. Indeed, Wales fans would have been fearing the worst when Bale went down after a seemingly innocuous challenge. Surely it wasn't going to end this way?
Chris Coleman took a pretty brave step in changing things at half time. Perhaps a weaker manager would have kept it as it was, hoping that Bale would snap out of it and play like he has for Spurs. Instead, step forward Jonathan Williams. The diminutive midfielder has been on the cusp of breaking through for a little while but a broken leg had left him out of the picture. Now it was time for the little man to make his presence felt.
And he did. Little Joniesta was the catalyst to spark the turn around. He was fearless and marauding as he took the ball forward. Teaming with Ramsey in the middle of the park, their movement struck fear into the Scottish side and they simply couldn't cope. For the penalty, Ramsey skinned another barely-a-footballer, Charlie Adam, and then Snodgrass to play in Gunter. Snodgrass, desperately, lunged in on Gunter for the second time and picked up a second yellow card. He could have no complaints; his tackle was late, off the ground and rather dangerous. The Scottish side tried in vain to convince the ref it was outside the box but, alas, they were wrong.
Now, Ramsey is my hero. I remember the day he returned to Cardiff from Arsenal on loan and I almost wept with joy. But I don't feel confident with him taking penalties. He scored one for Team GB against South Korea in the Olympics that was whole-heartedly unconvincing. He then later missed one which, if anything, was slightly more convincing. But his penalty against Scotland was supreme.
He never looked like he would miss. He absolutely stonked it home, bar and in, with pure power. It was indicative of his performance. He looked back to his best. Skilful, marauding and confident. Arsène Wenger, take note. Ramsey is a joy to watch when he is in his pomp. Arsenal simply have not been getting the best out of him.
And then the winner was all in Joniesta making. He took it forward, drew the defender then slotted the ball into Andy King. His cross was sumptuous and Robson-Kanu leapt like a proverbial salmon. Caldwell, who is disguised as a Premier League centre half, had no hope against HAL, who nodded the ball home to complete a three minute turn around.
It's here I will pay kudos to Coleman. The Welsh team played passing football. I was critical that Cookie wasn't a tactically astute manager, rather, playing hoof ball and preferring to keep it simple. But his Welsh side kept the ball and rarely panicked. After going in 1-0 down, he could have gone direct. But instead, he brought on Williams and the team carried on how they were. Keeping the ball, working the opening and turning the game around. Ramsey, Bellamy, Williams were all outstanding.
Tuesday is a massive game and, thanks to a late and avoidable red card, Ramsey will be missing. Normally, this would be a huge worry. But, if Bale can shake off his virus to play, it's surely a straight swap; Ramsey for Joniesta. If Wales play like they did against Scotland, we can beat Croatia.
Optimism has rarely been a Welsh fan's best friend. I remember streaming away from a 4-0 win over Azerbaijan which put us top of our qualifying group with a 100% record. And then watched as it all came crashing down against Russia. A win against Croatia would give Wales a small but important chance of qualifying, something that could give the players a bit more impetus in the closing qualifying games. I didn't think Coleman was the man for the job. But if they can continue to perform like they did against Scotland, then, he is absolutely the right man.