Following tremendous starts that have seen both sides go unbeaten in Euro 2016 qualifying so far, Israel welcome Wales to Haifa on Saturday in what is rightly being labelled the biggest game of the group to date.
Wales manager Chris Coleman labelled this game as Wales’ biggest since their Euro 2004 playoff with Russia, which the Welsh lost 1-0 on aggregate over two legs.
At the squad announcement last week, Coleman said: ‘This next game will be the biggest game in Welsh football for years, since Russia. It is an absolutely huge game for us.
‘Top against second! The next two games are going to dictate whether we finish in the top two or whether we’re fighting for third.’
Anyone who knows the history of the Welsh national side knows not to get ahead of themselves too much because, like against Russia, or against Romania or Scotland in years gone by, it can all go so wrong so quickly.
Confidence in Welsh football right now is at it’s highest since that 2004 campaign and some have argued that there are striking similarities between now and then.
On both occasions, Wales went undefeated in the opening four games as well as securing perhaps unlikely results both home and away in both campaigns, in this campaign’s case perhaps the two 0-0 draws and in 2004’s case the Italy/Finland wins.
Perhaps what is fuelling Wales’ fans pessimism, or will at least be at the back of their minds, is what happened after the opening four games of Euro 2004 qualifying (Wales didn’t win another game in that campaign).
Old habits die hard
Two problems Wales have had over the years, both interlinked in previous campaigns, are an abundance of injuries and a lack of commitment.
For the first time this campaign, Wales have a (more or less) full strength squad to choose from as they go into this international clash against Israel.
Earlier in the campaign, Wales were rocked by over a dozen injuries as they faced Bosnia and Cyprus in a double header at the Cardiff City Stadium.
This time there is just a handful of injuries to worry about, something that leaves Chris Coleman with a nice selection headache for once in midfield.
Despite the fact that Jonny Williams is still out, Chris Coleman has to decide if he plays all three of Aaron Ramsey, Joe Ledley and Joe Allen in midfield, and in what system if so.
Wales have played a 3-5-2 and a 4-2-3-1 this campaign. No-one is expecting to see the former again as that was a system catered for Bosnia so if the three are to play in a 4-2-3-1 do we see Ramsey at number 10 with the other two sitting deep, and if so can he fulfil that role?
I think he can. Former FAW Head of Youth Development Chris Whitley described Ramsey to me as someone who ‘wants to take the corners and head them in’ so his commitment is beyond question.
He has the creativity to play in that role and, whilst some have said his performances for Wales recently haven’t been up to scratch, shifting him to 10 could change that.
On the commitment front, Ashley Williams is the perfect example of why those issues are now a thing firmly in Welsh national football’s past.
He will earn his fiftieth cap on Saturday, in only the 57th Wales fixture since his debut, so an amazing show of commitment from the Swansea City skipper.
Joe Allen, who knows the centre-back very well from their time playing alongside each other at Swansea City, said that Williams’ commitment is his most impressive trait:
‘Ash has been a fantastic influence on me, at club and international level. I think the commitment and the drive he has to succeed is brilliant and rubs off on the entire squad.’
James Chester won’t partner him at the back as Coleman left him out of the squad due to Chester’s longstanding shoulder injury but a Williams-Collins combination is a good alternative.
Coleman said: ‘Shoulder injuries take longer to recover than doctors say – it is a shame because he’s been magnificent for us and has struck a great partnership with Ashley.’
For all of the criticism being levied at Gareth Bale in Spain at the moment, whether you think it is justified or not, his commitment for Wales cannot be questioned.
Chris Coleman commented in this regard: ‘Gareth comes here, he wants to be involved, he’s incredibly motivated – he is the last person I am worried about honestly.
‘We’re almost half way and we’ve got a really good chance. The pressure is on and he loves that pressure, he can handle that, that environment where everything is on the line.’
Wales left-back Neil Taylor reaffirmed the views of his manager and added that, despite the criticism, Bale isn’t taking any notice of it and is just enjoying his football:
‘I don’t know if playing here is a release for him, you’d have to ask him, but all I know is that he looks like he is enjoying his football.
‘He’s fit and ready, like everyone, he turns up for every trip and always gives his best so you can see how much he wants it as a Welshman.’
Whatever is being said, his talent is undeniable. The criticism and the car-bashing in Spain is too far. Sure he can improve but who can’t? If he scores the winner against Israel but has an awful game otherwise, which of those two facts would people remember more?
Israel’s Monsterous midfield
A bit if research will tell you that, although they aren’t doing it in the English Premier League or in La Liga, Israel’s midfield are more than competent goal-scorers!
Biharis Nacho, Eran Zahavi and Lios Refaelov have all scored tonnes of goals domestically this season – Zahavi has managed to get 25 on his own – and Damari up front is joint-top-scorer with Danny Welbeck in qualifying so far on five goals.
Israeli journalist Raphael Gellar told me of his confidence going into these fixtures: ‘It is a very good time for Israel. I expect us to beat Wales and hopefully get a point from Belgium.
However Gellar was realistic regarding the run Israel have had to get to this point in the group: ‘If we can get 3-4 points from the next two matches, I will be impressed.
‘I am not surprised we are doing well but at the same the only tough team we played is Bosnia (and arguably Cyprus) but Bosnia had several injured players and they didn’t support their manager.’
They’re no slouches on the defensive end either; when Israel played Portugal in the last campaign, they completely shut down Cristiano Ronaldo, so could they do the same with Bale?
What is clear is that this is a huge game for both teams – if Wales lose, does the memory of previous campaigns come back to haunt them? Will it be too big a task to pick the players up for the next game, which is at home to Belgium in June?
For Israel, this game is the first of a double-header that will decide what they’re fighting for in the group. If they lose to Wales, can the manager pick them up for a game three days later against Belgium, one of the best international teams in football?
So much is on the line in this one for both sides – as a Welshman I will obviously be backing Coleman and the guys but Wales are absolutely going to be up against it in this one.