Contest. And then maybe not?

Where are Wales? What level they at? Are they heroic over-achievers, in a cruel, more heavily-endowed-with-everything kindofa world? Or what? Where’s the Wales Place, in footballing terms – and maybe the other stuff? Football-wise, are they brave and bold, or are they ungenerous and perverse? Are the ‘limitations’ enabling or stultifying? Where do,or should Wales pitch themselves?

These and more LIVE QUESTIONS lie resolutely unanswered beneath… in my live blog from Wales v Iran.

I note to the universe the wonders of the human eye. Because the eight zillion pounds a pop cameras covering #Wales #Iran are plainly battling against the glories of the light. (*Insert smart-arsed Dylan Thomas gag, here*). The stark incredi-contrast between bright and mercifully shaded areas of the park are almost too much for mere, space-age technology. But the Beeb Camera-people and the rest wrestle on, manfully.

Wales start well, disappear for ten minutes then Moore should score from a curling cross from the right. Not clear if he really is hurt by the defender’s boot or whether he’s just lying there, mortified. In a (rareish?) moment of clarity and brevity, the commentator on said channel pronounces this a ‘contest’ – and he’s right. Encouragingly.

Iran have hoisted a ball or two longish, early, to expose the Wales centre-backs turning-circle. It nearly works and it’s an interesting, perhaps counter-intuitive tactical ploy.

On fifteen minutes the whites ‘score’… but the onrushing attacker has rather poorly gotten ahead of the ball. Clearly off: a ‘you had one job moment’. Alarming, though, for Wales – the opposition already looking like they will register. Bale is mildly contacted in the fizzog by a loose but unthreatening arm. He rolls theatrically to the floor, just on the off-chance that the ref might produce a red. Gaz may be a god… but that was cheap as chips.

Twenty-five minutes in and Iran are marginally the better: they aren’t remotely slaughtering Wales in the way that the USA did, in that extraordinary first period of game one, but they have more controlled possession and do look more threatening. Marginally. Then Ramsey is looking a little more influential, which may augur well in terms of establishing rhythm and a level of ease with the occasion. The game is tense but rather low-key: there is space to play but not enough quality, from either side, to string multiple passes together.

Again Iran go long. Understandably. They have plainly identified a weakness in the core of that Welsh defence. Suddenly, one-on-ones look a danger. Rodon and Davies have both had to scramble. But Wilson responds, finding Williams in a luxury of space on the left of the Iranian box. Unusually for the flying full-back, his touch is poor and uncommitted. A real opportunity is wasted.

First corner on 42 minutes: Iranian keeper claims. Already that feeling that both sides are prepared to accept a Phoney War, in the knowledge that this will become unacceptable come the (what?) 75 minute-mark. A draw really not likely to be enough for Wales: however much they protest their lack of fear for England, Southgate’s side are significantly superior. The Page Posse must therefore look to bank some points, here.

Iran are probably less good than the USA, but they will feel that a win against Wales offers some hope for going beyond the group stage. They will consider a draw in that final game entirely possible. Four points might take somebody through, especially if England go through the group with three victories. All of which brings us back to notion that both sides must look to win this fixture – despite what coaches, captains and fans might say, should this turn out a draw.

At the half, a draw seems likely. Just before the break, Iran came close to breaking the deadlock after a controlled move down the right finished with a smart, curled cross that Rodon just managed to shepherd away. A critical view of Wales might be that again they have failed to retain possession or build attacks. Against Iran, the weakest team in their group. For all his inspiring brilliance, Bale has again been quiet. He may be a past master of finding or waiting for His Moment but another view of this is that he is simply not offering enough.

Palpably, Wales have limited playing resources – even acknowledging that this group has more players who can genuinely live/compete at international than any Welsh side for many years. They have lived off team spirit and occasional flickering moments of genius or high-level execution from their skipper for aeons. Now the captain has again to deliver, not just in terms of snatched goals – although manifestly that would ‘do’ – but by playing well, influencing the pattern of the game. Ditto Ramsey, the other player of high (if faded) quality. Wales needs more than the occasional miracle: they need to play better.

We kick off. Again neither side presses hard, so there is scope to gather and get your head up. Iran’s defensive shape looks to be holding, with some comfort, any Welsh incursions. The reverse is less true.

On 51 minutes Iran ‘must score’ three times. They burst clear on the right, Azmoun beats the keeper but the ball clatters back off Hennessy’s left-hand post. Within seconds, Gholizadeh belts his right-hand upright, with a fabulous, curling, left-foot drive which rebounds out to the diving centre-forward, who nods into the keeper’s chest. Barely credible. A real surge, now, for Iran. Perhaps the single-most concerning period of pressure, for Wales.

Page must be concerned but he has no choice: despite being in trouble, he must throw on attacking substitutions. James and Johnson, for Roberts and Wilson.

The flow remains with Iran. An hour done, and for the first time I’m thinking Wales win this 1-0 with another Bale against-the-grain intervention. Iran have another gear; are zestier, more energetic, more ‘likely’. They deserve to be ahead. Perfect territory for a Gaztastic heartbreaker.

Azmoun – who has been excellent – retires, looking exhausted. Dan James does that thing where he looks to have gained a crucial yard but fails to deliver. Wales do have real pace on the park, now, at least.. but will either Johnson or James have the composure to convert… or produce the gift that Wales so desperately need?

Hennessey has to save a slightly scuffed shot, diving to his left. Corner and more pressure. Then another. The keeper has to punch clear twice. It’s ‘all Iran’. They make a triple substitution on 75 minutes. Allen replaces Ampadu, for Wales. James finds another blind alley. It’s feistier, maybe scrappier. Angst is rising with the tightening of the time. Bale fails with a rather indulgent flick: it’s almost certain the guy’s playing hurt but he’s made no meaningful contribution and his side have been second-best – not overwhelmingly, but without question second-best.

Finally Wales produce an encouraging passage of play. James crosses long and loopy. There is a some teetering -on-the-brink before Davies is teed-up. He smashes high.

Then the Great Moment of Drama. Iran burst clear and Hennessey clatters the attacker. Has to be red – initially yellow is hoisted. The referee, rightly, is hauled over to the monitor and forced to correct. There are only a handful of minutes remaining but Wales remove Ramsey to sling in the replacement keeper, Ward.

It’s time to get behind the sofa, for the watching Welsh. Into the 90th minute but there will – of course, at #Qatar2022 – be a lump of added time. Even with ten, Wales still have to look for a win. (Repeat, no matter the traditional Welsh defiance towards the English, (and the possibility they might beat the enemy over the bridge) this is the game they have to win. Iran have looked waaay more likely to win, in this second period in particular.

Iran, however, possibly lack that killer instinct – they’ve been good, but not clinical. They are now looking a little tetchy, which is unlikely to help. Wales even have a sniff… but no. It’s all gone a bit Headless Chicken.

There are nine minutes of added time but they are largely scrappy. *Until*…

Another Iranian surge. In the 98th minute a fine right-footed strike from the Iranian number 15, Chesmi, from twenty-seven yards, finds the bottom corner. Ward may get a fingertip on it but in it goes. Finally, something to roar about: the stadium obliges. All those fans, many of whom openly wept during the forced sing-song that was the Iranian national anthem, pre-game, are jumping/screaming/bawling again – only for joy. What a sight, what a sound.

We’re not done. In the 100th minute the lead is doubled, with Wales cut brutally open. It’s one of those cruel breakaways that tends to happen when a team is left with no choice but to ‘gamble’, recklessly. Iran don’t care: Rezaeian scores after the space has opened, with a cute dink over the goalkeeper. Devastating for Bale, Page – for all of Wales – but they were beaten, as it were, on merit.

Following morning. I wake up with the strong urge to note something further about Gareth Bale. It’s simply this: that he will probably retire from internationals, after the England game. (This of course on the assumption that Wales go out of the tournament – which I fully accept is not a given. But it is likely).

Bale really is a god, here in Wales: truly loved and adored by both the Proper Fans and the Folks Who Ain’t That Bothered About Football. This despite him being a rather undemonstrative sort, personality-wise. And in return he gets that special thing about Being Welsh… and has delivered both on that and on the park – largely because of that inspiration. Bale loves Wales.

Know what? I’m thinking now that if he does sign off, there may be a post to write. ‘T will, be lost, as per, in the other zillion but maybe I’ll return to this. So enough, for now. Except to say that in my view Bale is ver-ry close to being completely shot, as a player, now. On the one hand it’s clear that playing for Wales has been the real driver behind his football for the last several years: he’s hobbled through in order to play in red at the Big Events. Now I think he should stop.

Levels of Hurt.

Bale’s two interventions. Ramos. Karius. Salah. Wow.  The word is probably ‘dramatic’.

Dramatic but cruel? Dramatic and relatively just? Depends where you’re at. As a neutral, the result felt a tad generous to the slightly haughty Spain-based gentlemen but they were (in some sense) classier and more comfortable on the night. Predictably.

Modric was absurdly unhurried as usual; Marcello – without engaging annoyingly flamboyant mode – was cool. The Liverpool midfield were not; most of the Red Men, were not.

For much of the game, Milner and Wijnaldum and Henderson fluffed things or threaded passes straight to the opposition. Both the Englishmen did that thing where they make the case against themselves, as top international players. They looked bloody ordinary – and one-paced.

Wijnaldum was mostly worse than that, for the first hour plus,  but almost looked to have settled, arguably unhelpfully, by about the eightieth minute.

The passing out from defence was similarly twitching between the poles of freneticism and wastefulness. Klopp seemed generally impassive on the sidelines but the disappointment at the level of sheer nervousness and consequent lack of fluency and fire must have hurt him. Not much worse than not turning up for a massive, massive game.

By my reckoning only Mane and Robertson did themselves justice – certainly in terms of forward, or forward-thinking play.

Sure we can credit Modric (mainly) for the suppression of the Liverpool Way, but I can’t be the only one who (whilst acknowledging Real’s impressive ease) also feels they might really have been vulnerable to the kind of exhilirating rampage Klopp’s team have been serving up all year.

Instead Ramos and Morcello and co went relatively untested.

Of course it’s easy to be critical after the event but I did wonder during the game why the Liverpool coaches were not more animated and maybe proactive. (Presumably Klopp tried to light a bonfire at halftime, rather than counselling calm and measured improvement?)

If Klopp was content to concede possession and look to counter-attack – that’s maybe only to be expected, right? – then okaaaay, except that conceding possession against the most successful team in European Cup/Champions League history will surely invite trouble in the end? Plus – in my view critically – Liverpool have thrived via a pacy, open matrix rather than an italianate(?) deliberately staccato slow-then-alarmingly-quick approach.

Firmino wants to flick things and move; Mane wants to run, Salah wants to turn and race. Much of this starts from halfway and/or springs from periods of pressure,  from within the energy and context of an athletic, confident, free-running team. In my view that kind of team might be more of a threat to Ramos’s relative lack of legs, Morcello’s arrogance etc etc.

In short I think Klopp missed a trick – or his players were too awestruck to express their natural way. That’s a tad frustrating.

The genuinely sad and inevitably damaging removal of Salah was of course a factor – though already Liverpool’s performance seemed both muted and on balance likely to stay that way. The dancing Egyptian might plainly have unzipped the Madrid backline at any moment and the watching world was robbed of much of that frisson.

In terms of Match-winning Moments, let’s concentrate on Bale’s extraordinary overhead. Throw in the fact that it was *more possible* for a left-footer to do what he did than a right… and we are still left with something impossible. Impossible and magnificent and staggeringly, wonderfully worthy. And how hilarious that all of us thought immediately of Ronaldo’s ego flinching at the sight?

The other Madrid goals were clangers off-the-scale: mortifying to watch. Paul Hayward has rightly led the calls for understanding of the possible dangers around these freakish and traumatic moments. Let’s just add that maybe we all have a kind of duty of care to Karius and then move on, hoping that he can, with help and support,  gather himself and respond.

Madrid are champions and they deserve it. They may be fortunate though, that the real Liverpool did not show up; that Liverpool might have hurt them.

That’s so-o welsh, that is!

  • After today’s ‘sport’ I could do one of many things, including;
    • buy a pint for Pete from Merthyr, who had that nervy but jovial but mainly Welsh thing going on, live on Radio Wales’s (footie) post-match phone-in. Garrulous and neck-deep in val-leees singsongaciousness, Pete started by saying
    I’m on top a the moon boys! – clars-sic, mun, surely? – before reeling off more homespun but genuinely heart-warming clichés than your favourite uncle. (Actually, I think Pete is my favourite uncle.)
    • or… I could buy a few tinnies for the Aussie rugby boys, who out-Walesed Wales, by turning adversity – two men down – into some bloody, black-eyed, backs-to-the-wall Alamo/exemplar.
    • or go off on one about how even though I’m as fed up as you lot with hearing the word ‘execution’, Wales surely really did need to execute one of the forty-three chances to get points on the board whilst Genia and some other bloke were unemployed for ten minutes each. Because that would have been the difference and mostly there had been no difference in the levels at which the two sides were playing – unusually, for a contest between northern and southern hemispheres.

I may do all three – or I would like to. Or one of many other things which reek of or speak of the cultish-crazy, leeky, drunken, stolid, donkey-derby wonderwallness of the day.

Wonderwall because hope is somehow scorching dizzily through. Rightly and deservedly if not entirely predictably for Biggar and Roberts and Davies; amaaaazingly and deservedly for Ramsey and Hennessey and Bale.

But donkey derby? Dare I be ‘avvin’ a pop at the lack of quality somewhere here? In (let’s say) that team of Coleman’s? How could I? Why would I? ‘Fraid I must. Though I’m the daydreamiest of believers in hwyl and teaminess, I do have guilty concerns about Wales’ football achievements; or rather about what happens next.

On the one hand it’s clearly and unarguably marvellous that a side with only three international players – Ramsey/Bale/Williams – has shown such a durable mixture of organisation, work-rate and (crucially) togetherness that they’ve fair scooted through the qualification process. That Coleman fella – who many of us were labelling simply out of his depth in elite level togger – has engineered an inviolably significant and maybe particularly personal achievement here. But the thing is that despite remaining unbeaten against Belgium and that stand-out 3-0 away win in Israel, Wales have shown little quality other than those qualities that have seen them through. They’re gonna need more.

Many hackles will rise at this point and I understand why, when – DOH! OBVIOUSLY – those qualities are all part of the spirited package that is sport. I get that. In fact I spend much of my working life and most of my scribbling time BIGGING UP the notion that soulbrother or sisterhood is both an essential and a hugely rewarding facet of these daft games of ours. And yet.

And yet there must be skill; we should aspire to the beautiful and the profoundly pleasing as well as to brothers-in-arms resolution, a) because it’s philosophically right and b) because that’s how the success builds. So though I absolutely applaud what is an undoubted success for Coleman’s crew, I exercise my right as a fan to want more/advise for more. Please.

For much of today’s game Bosnia struck me as a team playing close to the lowest acceptable standards for international football. Consequently, early in the second half, without ever looking fluent or (actually) entertaining, Wales were coasting. But they lacked the quality to pick off their poor opponents.

Even with Bale on the park, Wales lacked a real threat, a focus, as they fluffed the opportunity to dismiss the Bosnians. (Incidentally, despite his goal-scoring record, I think Bale has been decidedly average, or certainly disappointingly inconsistent, too often in this campaign. Am I alone in that?) Robson-Kanu meanwhile, epitomises the Willing But Limited category that the bulk of the side (regrettably) fall into.

Some of this sounds spiteful and/or simply illogical. Let me swiftly express again my suspiciously amorphous disquiet at the relative absence of refined talent in the group… and then we’ll move on. What I suspect we can all share and enjoy is the delicious Welshness of the moment of qualification; via a crap result against a crap side. And that not mattering.

Plugged in as usual to the twittersphere, I loved that so much of the day’s #bantz seemed to belong to The Principality – and no, don’t be daft, I don’t mean the mob who’ve just bought the rights to the Millenium – I mean Wales. Before dropping back into events at Twickers, mind, we should really be noting the further hike in #RWC2015’s dander during and following the boshtastic Scotland Samoa game.

The evident passion, commitment and commitment to drama in this encounter re-lit the tournament for the umpteenth time and was again a proper fillip for rugby globally. This was a match where onslaught followed onslaught and the world again shared Samoan grief as though it was our own. The pride and the bonkers levels of what we may have to call bonding or devotion were sensational… and the boy Laidlaw dun well again.

But on The International Day… for Welshnesses we need to conclude with a flash through other worthy daiversions. I’ll remember
• timelines full of jokes about how appropriately (i.e. welshly) Gatland’s and Coleman’s teams achieved their notable successes; firstly by both getting roundly defeated and secondly by acquiescing in the universal conspiracy to give them what they deserved, anyway.
• And I note the kind of start – in fact the kind of first half from Wales rugby – that said something rather profound about being comfortable in the challenge. Perhaps this then was the Welsh Haka? An expression of confidence… and a welcoming for the trial? It did feel like a validation – like Wales were being clear that they knew they were worthy – and ready. And that may yet project forward (who knows?) to powerful advantage.

However, turns out Wales rugby too wasn’t quite skilled enough to execute/penetrate/skewer the enemy. When those endless yellow moments came the Roberts-centricity of the Gatland era was maybe exposed? Phase after phase was rebuffed by the inspired bison in gold ‘n green. Whether this was an opportunity criminally and terminally missed (I suspect it was), or whether this Hen wlad will resurrect yet again in all its perversely gog or cardi or starless and bibleblack glory, who can tell? But in defeat, in squeaky-arsed glory, the day belonged to Wales.

In Between Days?

Don’t know ‘bout you guys but despite the seasonal arrival of well… mainly socks to up the sartorial ante, I’m both looking and feeling a tad dishevelled; peeky; and a tad bloated.  The dog-walking has been an essential antidote to pies and puddings and the occasional pint but not, in truth, sufficient.  I’ve needed a dive in the ocean or a game of rugby or something to truly de-cobweb  or detox the overwhelmed pipework.  Haven’t had it though.

Following this week of lacklustre engagement with either/neither the coalface or the sporting widescreen j’accuse – I accuse myself actually – of a kind of proportionate indolence that prematurely factors in all the really active stuff I have lined up and thereby gets me off the hook.  (Pass that pie, please?)  I accuse moreover, the Mother-in-Law of baking far too much.  Generally, I accuse the calendar of being too Christmassy; but I need to move on.

To the sport.

Kauto Star may well be the real story over the Xmas period but he is an athlete I am barely familiar with.  I can more honestly comment therefore, on the gallop towards the Premiership title, now featuring just the two legitimate Mancunian thoroughbreds.  If that’s what they are?

Manchester United have eased into a position of some control, despite a brief period where they were utterly exposed  -chiefly by City but then in their poor European campaign – as only mediocre pretenders to the title.  Ferguson will know that his side have barely improved of late and will be conscious of the need to maximise psychological capital from criticism of  The Reds from perceived traitors (Roy Keane) and around issues both for and against the strength of his squad – now being tested to the limit by injuries.

United certainly do need players to compete with authority and confidence in the Champions League next year; some added brilliance in midfield and some fit defenders may help.  And yet, domestically, almost independent of any assets the team may have or lack, results come.   The defining quality, the defining force of the Premiership itself still being that fierce Scottish fire smouldering beneath this extraordinary club’s belief.

Mancini, on the other hand, enters a period where both he and the widely imagined disunity within his starry group will be tested.  Are they – in particular these disproportionately remunerated foreigners – able to show real Premiership grit when the squeeze is suddenly applied?  If fluky things suddenly start to go against them, will the likes of Balotelli and Aguerro rally round some newly pressurized core?  (Given that for me both are already showing if not outright selfish tendencies then certainly an awareness of a need to make a personal impact, I do wonder how emphatically City will respond as a team to an allegedly inevitable ‘bad patch’).  We may learn a great deal about the legitimacy of any sky-blue badge-kissers in the next period, methinks.

Crucially, perhaps, now that City have finally faltered – only drawing at West Brom, being held by Chelsea – allowing United to draw level on points, will Silva flow so freely and with such influence?

So results (or something) conspired almost miraculously in the last 48 hours or so to re-hoist United, whilst undermining the Chelseas and Liverpools of this world.  Arsenal too, despite playing consistently well are coming from too far back.  Tottenham – lovely, pacy, Redknappy Tottenham – are bursting brilliantly but likely to be less durable, I would argue, than the Northern Bootboys.  The sensational Bale is quite possibly the single most exciting footballer on the planet, currently; he is the antidote to Lucas and to Cattermole and to the often outstanding but unsprinting Barry.  By sweeping past people in a way that seemingly owes more to childish expressionistic glee than to any football coaching book, Gale is capable of bursting through cynical or disinterested hearts.  Even my marzipan bubble was disturbed by the flying Welshman.

But a passing and respectful nod to Kauto Star and at least a mention of the magnificent, record-breaking crowd of 82,000 for the recent Harlequins v Saracens match at Twickenham are in order.  As is a further airing for the name Farrell (junior), with which some time in February the sporting population may again become generally familiar.

Perhaps though not before your currently sedentary scribe has actually done a substantial amount of running, throwing, batting, bowling; developing his How To Coach as well as his What To Coach skills.  Is there I wonder a workshop out there on How To Shed That Seasonal Lethargy-Thing?  If so, put my name down… immediately.