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The World Cup dream is still alive for Wales and Gareth Bale. The Real Madrid forward is enduring another underwhelming season at club level.
At the time of writing, he has made only four La Liga starts for Los Blancos, after making just 10 in the Premier League while on loan at Tottenham Hotspur last season. Bale is out of contract in the summer and his next move is uncertain. As has been the case for a while, his main focus seems to be the national team.
Bale has played in two European Championships, with Wales benefitting from UEFA’s decision to expand the tournament from 16 to 24 teams ahead of Euro 2016. He has not yet played at a World Cup, however. In fact, none of his countrymen have since 1958 – Wales’ first and to date only appearance in soccer’s biggest tournament. The Dragons reached the quarter-finals 64 years ago before suffering elimination at the hands of a Pele-inspired Brazil, the eventual champions.
The 2022 edition of the World Cup will be the last to feature 32 teams, with 16 more sides set to be added in time for 2026 in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The expansion will make it easier for countries like Wales to qualify, but it would be a far greater achievement if Rob Page’s side were to make it to a 32-team competition.
They have a chance to do so after finishing second in Group E in the first round of the qualification process. Wales were always going to struggle to win the group ahead of Belgium, but they deserve credit for edging out the Czech Republic in the race for second.
Wales are now two home games away from the World Cup: the winner of Thursday’s tie will face Scotland or Ukraine in a play-off final at the Cardiff City Stadium.
Whereas Wales qualified for the playoffs by finishing second in their group, Austria has made it this far by virtue of their showing in the 2020/21 Nations League.
Franco Foda’s side only managed a fourth-place finish in Group F, finishing behind Denmark, Scotland, and Israel. They won just one of their six meetings with those opponents, but the fact they beat Norway to the top spot in their most recent Nations League group has given Austria a second bite of the cherry.
Their chances of making it to Qatar depend on which version of Das Team shows up. Austria played beneath themselves in qualifying, and they struggled for consistency at last summer’s European Championship. Austria were disappointing in a 2-0 loss to the Netherlands, much improved in a 1-0 victory over Ukraine, and unfortunate to lose in the round of 16 to eventual winners Italy.
Austria certainly have the quality to beat Wales, but they must also play with the sort of organization and cohesion that has at times eluded them under Foda.
David Alaba will be key, but it is still unclear where exactly he will play: at the start of Euro 2020 he was curiously deployed at the heart of the back three, before later being moved to left-back. If Austria are to qualify for their first World Cup since 1998, they will need Alaba to be at his brilliant best.
The Path A play-off final was originally scheduled to be held next Tuesday, but it has been pushed back to June along with the second semi-final between Scotland and Ukraine.
The winner of Thursday’s encounter in Cardiff will therefore have to play a waiting game before contesting that all-or-nothing clash in the Welsh capital in three months’ time.
The Cardiff City Stadium is also the venue for this semi-final, and that will hand Wales an advantage. These are two evenly-matched teams, but the combination of a partisan crowd and a more solid defense means it is worth backing Page’s charges to get the victory.
Wales conceded nine goals in their eight first-round qualifiers – an average of 1.13 per game. Austria shipped 17 goals in 10 matches – a less healthy average of 1.7 per game.
Defenses often come out on top in high-stakes games where there is a huge prize up for grabs. Wales are more likely to keep a clean sheet than Austria, and one goal might be enough for them to advance to the final. Bale is short of match practice but his ability cannot be questioned. He, more than his Real Madrid team-mate Alaba, is most likely to emerge as this match’s hero.
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|Wales vs Austria Information|
|Teams||Wales vs Austria|
|Location||Cardiff City Stadium, Cardiff, Wales|
|Time||Thursday 24 March 2022, 3.45 PM EST|
|How to watch||ESPN|
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Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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