Real Madrid's Bale holds the key to Wales' hopes

AFP, Friday 10 Oct 2014

Gareth Bale
Welsh international soccer player Gareth Bale (Photo: AP)

If Wales are to finally reach a major tournament finals for the first time since the 1958 World Cup then Gareth Bale will undoubtedly need to be fit and firing in the majority of their Euro 2016 qualifiers.

So far, so good for Bale with the opening 2-1 Group B victory in Andorra last month secured courtesy of a fine goal-double by the Real Madrid superstar.

Now for the next challenge for the 100 million euros ($134 million, £79 million)) talisman Bale and his Wales teammates sees them up against World Cup finalists Bosnia-Herzegovina at the Cardiff City Stadium on Friday.

The spotlight is centred on Bale, the world's most expensive player, once again, particularly with key midfield duo Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen ruled out through injury.

But Ben Davies, the Tottenham defender, claims Chris Coleman's side, despite the presence of Bale who claimed the Welsh Footballer of the Year for the fourth time in five years on Monday, cannot afford to be a one-man team throughout the entire campaign.

"What Gareth is bringing to this campaign is clear -- he's a top class player with the quality he has got," said Davies.

"But you can't rely on him as a player to do everything for us. We all have to step up to the mark and all do our best to win the game.

"It is fair to say that Gareth is constantly improving. I think it comes from playing with better players. Every day he is playing with some of the best players in the world and he is going to improve by learning off them.

"When you see how committed he is to this Welsh team it's great for us as a squad and gives us a big boost every time we go out onto the pitch with him."

- Great expectations -

The boost Bale provides has also led to a new sense of expectation and rising excitement among Wales' long-suffering supporters.

Wales, now ranked a lofty 29th in the FIFA standings, are set to have their biggest home attendance in two years against the Bosnians, with a crowd of more than 25,000 guaranteed at the Cardiff City Stadium.

That would surpass the 23,249 crowd which witnessed Bale inspire the Dragons to a 2-1 win over Scotland in October 2012.

Crystal Palace midfielder Joe Ledley said: "We haven't had the crowds before and this proves we're doing something right on the pitch.

"It's down to us to perform but it will be great to play in front of a full house, especially at the Cardiff City Stadium in front of Welsh fans who are very passionate.

"We haven't had this much pressure on us before but it's fantastic pressure to have. It means everyone expects us to qualify and win, I had it before at Celtic and you thrive under it.

"When I was up there you were expected to win week-in, week out, even Champions League games, and it rubbed off on me."

While Wales kick-started their qualification hopes with a win, opponents Bosnia suffered a shock 2-1 home defeat by Cyprus.

Roma midfielder Miralem Pjanic said: "We had a bad start and lost three points, and now we're going to Wales to compensate for that loss.

"We have a good team, and I think we're the favourite team in the group besides Belgium, but first we have to prove that."

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