Bale and Ramsey take on final World Cup mission of enthralling Wales era | Barney Ronay

The two veterans remain the team’s outstanding dual threat as Wales aim to defy history against Austria in Cardiff

Behold. For he is risen. Gareth Bale is feeling better. Pictures of Bale training happily in Cardiff this week confirmed there are no lingering effects from the back pain (or “not feeling right”, according to Carlo Ancelotti) which had kept Bale out of Real Madrid’s 4-0 shellacking at home against Barcelona on Sunday night.

And as miracles of healing go, this is a timely one, after an absence which just happened, by pure coincidence, to fall four days before the biggest (and surely last) opportunity Bale is going to get to lead Wales to a World Cup. Let’s face it, he was never going to miss this one.

Nobody could ever accuse Uefa of dumbing down or oversimplifying its qualifying pathway. But at the end of that labyrinthine process Wales have been presented with what is, on the face of it, a highly favourable route to Qatar.

Robert Page’s team are well capable of winning Thursday’s home semi-final against Austria, who got here by finishing as the sixth‑highest ranked Nations League group winner, came fourth in qualification Group F, and are ranked 10 places lower than Wales by Fifa. The same goes for a final home eliminator against Scotland or Ukraine whenever world events permit – Uefa’s June scheduling already looks optimistic.

If this still feels like a complex chain of events with the World Cup itself only eight months away, there is at least a streamlined quality to the chat around the latest chapter in Welsh football’s grail quest of the past 64 years. We will, of course, be talking about Bale and Aaron Ramsey. Let’s do this one more time. Because it is always a little later than you think.

Aaron Ramsey reacts after the painful home defeat to the Republic of Ireland in 2017.
Aaron Ramsey reacts after the painful home defeat to the Republic of Ireland in 2017. Photograph: Alex Morton/Uefa/Getty Images

There are good reasons for focusing on those star names. Bale and Ramsey remain hugely potent figures. Together they have 56 international goals; no one else in the current squad has got past five. This has been such a clearly defined era, during which these two outstanding talents have been the armature of the Welsh national team, where in other environments star players might end up as decoration.

There is a sense here of something being played out to its final course. Much has been made of the likely atmosphere at the Cardiff City Stadium with some hopeful talk that the shared energy of a 30,000 crowd might be enough to disorientate opponents who have also missed out on the past five World Cups.

There are two issues with this. First, Austria have their own big-game players. Never mind David Alaba or Marcel Sabitzer, Marko Arnautovic remains a brilliantly talented footballer whose greatest weakness seems to be his capacity to fall asleep for long periods of his own career. Prodding him with a stick might not actually be the most productive tactic.

Mainly, though, successive qualifying campaigns in the Bale‑Ramsey era have been curtailed by very similar occasions, home defeat by a beatable opponent – with the caveat that on none of the three previous occasions have Wales managed to get both men out on the field at the same time with the scores still level.

In October 2017 Wales lost 1-0 against the Republic of Ireland, also at the Cardiff City Stadium, to kill off lingering hopes of a trip to the modern, open, globalist Russia of Vladimir Putin. Wales had Ramsey but not Bale on a night when the Euro semi-finalists continued to struggle with the idea of not being underdogs.

Four years earlier it was a defeat at the Liberty Stadium by Croatia that killed any dreams of Brazil 2014, as Wales fielded Bale but no Ramsey, who was suspended. Four years before that, a 2-0 defeat by Finland at the Millennium Stadium did at least see both men on field at the same time, with Ramsey a second-half sub, although Bale was still shackled to a defensive left‑back role.

Would it help to add that four years before that, hopes were also stilled by a home defeat – this one against their opponents on Thursday, Austria? Probably not. Although a year later Bale became the youngest capped Welsh footballer, Ramsey joining him in the squad a year after. And from there it has overall been a genuinely uplifting mini‑era, a feat of team building so organic that both men have been able to step back into this side whatever their state of fitness or the dramas of their club careers.

This process will now be tested to the full. Ramsey has three starts and one goal in club football since August. Bale has played two hours for Madrid in the past six months, and seems to have reached what is, on his “book age”, a premature state of declining appetite.

Gareth Bale has become a peripheral figure at Real Madrid.
Gareth Bale has become a peripheral figure at Real Madrid. Photograph: Pressinphoto/Shutterstock

It is easy to forget two things at this late stage. First, both men started so young. Bale made his professional debut three months before the 2006 World Cup, a footballing era so distant that two members of England’s own golden squad in Germany have been heard in the past week reminiscing about just how fine, and how much more difficult, life was back then.

The 32-year-old Bale has played through the passage from then to now, and has sustained 21 injuries in the past four years alone. For all the sense of an extended Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the late stage of his Madrid career, it is easy to overlook just how good Imperial Bale was: as exhilarating as anything the Premier League has seen, up there in a divine trinity with Peak Henry and Peak Ronaldo.

Moving the Goalposts
Moving the Goalposts Illustration: Guardian Design

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It has been a debilitating style too, based on explosive speed and running power, on inviting collisions. In spite of which Bale has played more than 600 professional games and scored more than 100 goals for Madrid alone. He has driven a relatively small football nation to a major semi‑final. Even in relative decline, he reeled off that flying top corner overhead in Kyiv, the greatest goal scored in a Champions League final. It has been one of the great careers.

Not that anyone in Wales needs reminding. But there is also a cost now to configuring a team around these basking giants. The tactical blanket is always too small, all the more so with two creative players in reduced states of mobility. Wales have tried different systems under Page, and have looked solid and hungry in their past four games. Ramsey started in all four. Bale played just 45 minutes.

Welsh football has always been an enigmatic thing. The extended World Cup absence makes little sense given the quality of footballers produced, although often this has translated into an overload of creative attacking players. At a time when the FAW Trust is launching an extended grassroots drive, menaced by a lack of facilities or a clear pathway, alarmed at seeing outstanding young talents hoovered up by clubs across the border, a place at the winter World Cup would be a significant parting gift for the current golden mini-era.


Barney Ronay

The GuardianTramp

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