As Wales start their bid to end their 54-year exile from major international tournaments, it is impossible not to think that the tragedy of last November is still harrowing all connected with Welsh football.
The death of Gary Speed devastated those that knew him and shocked the wider world of football, and while it may seem inconsiderate and inconsequential to say so, the lasting impact on the Wales players could yet compromise any hopes of them qualifying for a major tournament in the near future.
Under Speed, there was an undoubted Welsh renaissance underway. With a young, hungry and, above all, talented squad at his disposal, Speed used his reputation as one of the best and most respected Welsh players of all time to his advantage and managed to get his charges to buy into his vision.
The results were there for all to see: Speed’s last match was a 4-1 thrashing of Norway, which took the team’s run to five wins in seven matches (which also included outplaying England at Wembley and unluckily losing 1-0).
Wales are yet to score a goal in Coleman’s three games in charge and consecutive defeats to Costa Rica, Mexico and Bosnia deflated morale even further and the optimism coursing through Welsh veins when the World Cup qualifying draw was made has evaporated.
It was Chris Coleman who took what you might argue is the impossible job to succeed Speed, but thing have gone awry ever since. It was always going to be a difficult job for the former Fulham boss to follow Speed under the circumstances, but even he probably didn’t envisage the transition being so difficult.
Wales are yet to score a goal in Coleman’s three games in charge and consecutive defeats to Costa Rica, Mexico and Bosnia and Herzegovina deflated morale even further and the optimism coursing through Welsh veins when the World Cup qualifying draw was made has evaporated.
A tough group looks even tougher now and Croatia, Serbia, Scotland, Macedonia and Friday’s opponents Belgium will probably be looking at Wales as one of Group A’s weakest sides.
Belgium travel to Cardiff for the vital opening fixture, with the visitors the 4/5 favourites, the draw at 13/5 and the Welsh at 13/4, and those odds look about right to me.
The Belgians have all the talent in the world and look set to harness it with a real run at qualification for Brazil 2014. Marc Wilmots has taken over a side that underachieved in not qualifying for Euro 2012 under Georges Leekens, but the former Standard Liege star has a squad that should consider themselves dark horses to win the thing, let alone qualify.
A defence consisting of Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen and Thomas Vermaelen is as good as anything else around Europe, while in midfield Belgium have an embarrassment of riches in Marouane Fellaini, Moussa Dembele and, of course, Eden Hazard.
The strong Premier League theme also continues up front with the presence of Romelu Lukaku, Kevin Mirallas and Christian Benteke, and this is surely a group of players that will have too much class for Wales.
Belgium warmed up for this game with a 4-2 win over Holland and have only lost two of their 15 matches, both away from home to Germany and England. They have kept five clean sheets in their last nine matches on their travels and get can get off to a winning start against the Welsh.
But instead of the odds-on, take the 29/20 that Belgium win with under 3.5 goals in the match, which could return £49 for anyone successfully backing it with their free £20 bet upon registering with bwin.
Wales don’t look like they have many goals in them, while there have been three goals or less in 11 of Belgium’s 13 away games since the start of the 2010/11 season.
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