LONDON – The perfect footballer?
A one-man team?
There may be no such thing, but Gareth Bale is pushing these theories to breaking point as Wales braces itself to qualify for a major finals for the first time since 1958.
England has crossed the finish line to Euro 2016, so as the qualifiers reach their climax in the coming days the other home nations and the Republic of Ireland can take center stage as Roy Hodgson’s team aims to finish its campaign with a perfect record. Given that the opposition is Estonia (home) and Lithuania (away), whichever side he selects should finish the job with two more wins.
Wales is within touching distance of glory, needing one point from Friday’s visit to Bosnia & Herzegovina and the final home tie against Andorra to make an improbable dream come true.
Bale has been phenomenal. His performances have inspired not just his team, but an entire nation with the way he has almost made it a personal mission to take Wales through. At 26 Bale is at the peak of his considerable powers, a player able to score with either foot, his height and strength making him formidable in the air while maybe only Lionel Messi can top him when it comes to free kicks.
The former Southampton and Tottenham forward scored both goals when Wales won 2-1 in Andorra; two in the 3-0 victory in Israel, plus the winners in 1-0 wins over Belgium and Cyprus — six of his country’s nine goals in all. Wales manager Chris Coleman could not have asked more from his talisman who, despite his superstar status, majored in humility.
Eyebrows were raised when Real Madrid made Bale the world’s most expensive player and at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium he has to compete with multitalented teammates and Cristiano Ronaldo’s ego. Quiet and unassuming, Bale has yet to get to grips with Spanish after two years in Madrid, but even the Real fans, for who criticism is part of their DNA, concede Bar-lay (as they pronounce it) is the business.
With Wales, he is the main man, the leader, the heart and soul of the team, the go-to man when the going gets tough and Superman always seems to succeed where others fail but without a trace of arrogance. The way he celebrated his late winner against Cyprus, running to Coleman and the Wales bench with an expression of sheer, absolute joy told its own story.
Despite winning every personal award his country can offer, Bale is quick to praise his teammates, almost embarrassed at the attention he inevitably receives. He never makes the front pages of newspapers (sports supplements excepted) and he keeps his private life private. Bale is extremely media friendly — in English, anyway — and it is difficult to find even a pedantic criticism of him.
At a time when a minority of footballers behaving badly can damage the image of the sport, Bale is the ideal antidote.
It is unthinkable that Wales will trip up now and it hopes to secure qualification in Zenica so the game against Andorra can be a night of celebration and jubilation.
Swansea center-half Ashley Williams, who was playing for Stockport County until March 2008, has matured into a solid, reliable center-half.
Aaron Ramsey provides power and passing in midfield with the spine of the side completed by the seemingly unstoppable Bale.
He said: “We know what we have at stake, but we’re keeping calm. We know what we have to do. We’re showing on the international stage what we’re capable of. We’re in the top 10 now. It’s great to be where we are but we know we’ve still got a lot to do.
“We’re only focused on Bosnia, not Andorra. We want to get the job done as soon as possible. Everybody knows what we need to do. We’ll prepare 100 percent right. I’m sure we’ll all perform on the day.”
Northern Ireland played Greece, whose football team is as bad as the country’s economy, Thursday night searching for the two points it needs to qualify with Finland away to come. Michael O’Neill has worked a football miracle to take individuals from the lower leagues of English football and Scotland to the brink of Euro 2016.
Goalkeeper Michael McGovern plays for Hamilton Academical; right-back Conor McLaughlin is with Fleetwood; center-back Shane Ferguson plays for Millwall; midfielders Oliver Norwood and Stuart Dallas are at Reading and Leeds, respectively; leading goal scorer Kyle Lafferty struggles to get a game for Norwich.
What O’Neill has achieved with his team defies logic and proves that heart, commitment, determination and organization can more than compensate for technical deficiencies.
The Republic of Ireland and Scotland, whose group should go to the wire, played Germany and Poland on Thursday night, each hoping the other would lose. The smart money is on Wales (for sure) and Northern Ireland (don’t blow it now, please) joining England in France next summer, which would have been the stuff of dreams when qualification began.
Klopp in wings: A German hurricane is about to hit the Premier League in the form of Juergen Klopp, who is expected to be named Liverpool manager.
Brendan Rodgers’ departure was little surprise, the Northern Irishman a victim, as much as anything, of the farcical transfer committee that the Liverpool owners see as part of their plan. You cannot have four men deciding on new players, though it means individuals only had 25 percent of the blame for Mario Balotelli.
Klopp will no doubt insist that he and he alone chooses who comes and goes at Anfield and the charisma and personality of the former Borussia Dortmund coach will have Liverpool supporters onside straight away.
He does not lack confidence and is not afraid to say what the thinks, combining everything with a sense of humor that will make him a media darling in England. Given the unpredictable way the Premier League has started, where fourth place is up for grabs, with Klopp’s tactical acumen and motivational skills it would be wrong to rule Liverpool out of a Champions League spot.
Whatever it achieves, the feeling is it will be a fun ride with a man whose surname is manna from heaven for tabloid headline writers.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
Correction, Oct. 9, 2015:
It was incorrectly stated that Ashley Williams played for Stockport County until five years ago. He played with that team until March 2008.
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