Can Wales still rely on Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey?
Fans of the Wales national team have enjoyed some real highs over the last six years or so, with a surprise run to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 — ultimately losing 2-0 to eventual winners Portugal in the last four after knockout victories over Northern Ireland and Belgium — followed by the Red Dragons progressing to the round of 16 at last summer’s European Championships, where they were trashed by Denmark (4-0).
Just over 12 months on, and Rob Page’s men are preparing for another major tournament. However, this time it’s the World Cup. Wales haven’t featured in the pinnacle of world football since 1958, when they made it to the quarter-finals in Sweden. But, in what was likely be the last chance for staples Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale, they have ended that 54-year drought — beating Ukraine 1-0 in a play-off final at the Cardiff City Stadium back in June to book their place in Qatar.
The Red Dragons might not look as strong as they have done in years gone by, with both Ramsey and Bale aging and arguably dropping down from the elite level after being constantly plagued by injuries, while the rest of the squad announced by head coach Page on November 9 is largely made up of players in the English Football League. But they are still expected to progress from the group stages.
Drawn in Group B alongside rivals England, the United States Men’s National Team and Iran, Wales are the slight favourites ahead of the US to grab second behind the Three Lions. But while Southgate’s side should wrap up the top spot with relative ease, the US have a generational team and Iran can’t be written off that easily — coming into the World Cup as the number one ranked Asian team, and only one place behind Wales in the FIFA standings (20th).
There are also question marks surrounding Bale and Ramsey. They have carried this team for the best part of their successful period, but they certainly aren’t the players they once were and they might not be able to pull the strings at this World Cup. Aside from his loan spell at Tottenham Hotspur in 2020-21, scoring 11 times in 20 Premier League games, Bale’s gametime has been limited to say the least in the last three or four seasons.
Even since signing for LAFC in the MLS back in the summer, Bale has made just 12 appearances in the American top flight for his new side — racking up just 346 minutes of football in that time, an average of just 28 minutes per game. Just two starts in his time in the US is a massive concern and in must-win games when the odds are stacked against them — like in the Wales v England betting — will he still be able to step up to the occasion?
The same applies to Ramsey. Similarly outcast at Juventus, the midfielder took a huge step down to Rangers in a bid to seek regular minutes in the second half of last season, but he featured just seven times in the Scottish Premiership. Now at Ligue 1 side Nice, he’s often still found on the bench — making the starting XI on just 29 percent of the time so far this season.
Wales could struggle in Qatar with the powers of their two best players of this generation beginning to dwindle. Up against a young, hungry United States side — with an average age in the low 20s — there’s every chance the bookies have got it wrong and Wales could be sent packing as the US go through with England.