The last time Aaron Ramsey wore a Wales shirt, he left the field to a standing ovation in Lille, euphoric after leading his country to victory over Belgium in the quarter-finals of Euro 2016 but devastated at picking up the yellow card that ruled him out of the last-four meeting with Portugal. Four months on and “Rambo” is back, not a moment too soon and with a glowing endorsement from Chris Coleman. “There’s not a team on the planet he couldn’t play for when he’s at his best,” the Wales manager said.
Ramsey, ruled out of the first three World Cup qualification fixtures after picking up a hamstring injury playing for Arsenal on the opening day of the season, returns to the starting lineup against Serbia in a pivotal match for his country and with every Wales supporter hoping he can pick up where he left off in France, where his outstanding performances led to him being named in Uefa’s team of the tournament.
From Wales’ point of view, the timing could not be better. With two points squandered at home against Georgia last month and Serbia, the Group D leaders, arguably the biggest threat to their hopes of qualifying for the World Cup finals, Wales need their best players for a game that they cannot afford to lose.
Gareth Bale, as ever, will be the man Wales look to for inspiration in Cardiff on Saturday night as the Real Madrid forward closes in on Ian Rush’s goalscoring record (he is on 25, three behind), yet Coleman did not hesitate when asked whether Ramsey was “up there” when it comes to also being regarded as a world-class player.
“Oh yeah. Because I’ve seen him up close, in a tournament, I’ve seen the level he’s at,” the Wales manager said. “In my personal opinion there’s not a team on the planet he couldn’t play for when he’s at his best. That’s not a biased opinion because I’m a Welshman and we all love Rambo. I’m looking at it clinically. Playing in a tournament against the top teams, he was head and shoulders above. He could play for anyone.”
Coleman confirmed that Ramsey would start against Serbia but said he had a decision to make regarding how long he keeps the 25-year-old on the pitch, mindful of the fact that the player has started only once for Arsenal since returning from injury and not completed 90 minutes for club or country since Wales beat Northern Ireland in June. “He’s not played too much football for Arsenal,” Coleman said. “How long he’ll last, physically, we don’t know, but we do know he’s generally probably one of the fittest players playing football. Looking at the last two months, we have to see where he’s at.”
Facing Serbia evokes bitter memories for Wales. They were beaten 6-1 in Serbia in 2012 on a chastening evening that left Coleman considering his future as manager and suffered a 3-0 defeat in Cardiff 12 months later – the last time Wales lost a competitive match at home. “That’s a scar – we can’t take it away,” Coleman said. “But I won’t be saying to the players we’ve got to make up for it; it’s gone. These are two different teams with different objectives and we’ve moved on.”
Wales, however, will look to the past in another respect. Ashley Williams, the captain, talked about trying to recreate the sort of atmosphere that carried them to a famous 1-0 victory over Belgium in June 2015. “We understand that we need to give the fans something to go off and hopefully we can have another evening similar to that,” Williams said. “I still think maybe it was one of my best nights in football. The atmosphere was incredible – constant singing from the fans. They drove us on to get the win.
“Normally you are so involved in the game that you don’t take notice of what’s going on. But when they started to sing the anthem [in the second half] it was so loud that you had no choice but to just stop and understand what was going on. I remember at the final whistle Gunts [Chris Gunter] rugby tackled me to the floor and he was emotional. I thought: ‘I’ve never really seen this before on the pitch.’ That’s when I knew that night would be something I’d always remember.”
For Coleman, who seems likely to play Paul Dummett at centre-back in place of the injured Ben Davies, the visit of Serbia also represents a chance to sign off what has been a historic year in style. “We know how big it is,” he said. “We need to get the performance right and we need to make a statement because we don’t play again for a long time.”
Wales (3-4-2-1, probable): Hennessey; Chester, A Williams, Dummett; Gunter, Allen, Ledley, Taylor; Ramsey, Bale; Vokes
Serbia (3-4-2-1, probable): Stojkovic; Ivanovic, Maksimovic, Nastasic; Rukavina, Matic, Milivojevic, Tosic; Kostic, Tadic; Mitrovic
Referee A Mallenco (Spain)