London (AFP) – Gareth Bale’s Wales hope to recapture the spirit of Euro 2016 when they attempt to revive their flagging World Cup qualifying campaign against Ireland in Dublin on Friday.
Having stunned Europe by reaching the semi-finals of last year’s European Championship in France, Wales trail leaders Ireland by four points after four games in UEFA qualifying Group D.
However, whereas Ireland are blighted by injuries and suspensions, Wales are at full strength, with Real Madrid talisman Bale fit and firing following a spell on the sidelines with an ankle injury.
“We are a very good team when we’re at our best and at our strongest,” said Wales coach Chris Coleman.
“We need these players on the pitch consistently and we’re in pretty good condition. The squad might have looked different two or three months ago.
“But we’ve got players back and I’ve picked those who have been on the front foot and are most ready for this challenge.”
Wales launched their bid to reach a first World Cup since 1958 with a breezy 4-0 home win over Moldova, but they have since run into trouble.
A creditable 2-2 draw in Austria was followed by two frustrating 1-1 stalemates at home to Georgia and Serbia, Wales being pegged back after having taken the lead in both those games.
It left them third in the group, two points below second-place Serbia.
With only the top team in each group guaranteed to qualify for next year’s tournament in Russia, it means Wales desperately need to get back to winning ways at the Aviva Stadium.
Ireland have won their last three group games, after opening with a 2-2 draw away to Serbia, but assistant manager Roy Keane knows their players will have to be at their very best to stop Bale.
“Do you not think other players and coaches have tried to come up with a plan before?” asked the former Manchester United captain.
“But the top players seem to figure it out and they’ll affect the game. Bale has done that for a number of years for Madrid and on the big occasions.
“He’s a good player and we look forward to challenging ourselves against him.”
– McBride tributes –
Bale has already scored four goals in qualifying and needs two more to equal Ian Rush’s Welsh scoring record of 28 goals.
Coleman has also been boosted by the return to fitness of Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey following a calf strain.
The game could see 17-year-old Liverpool forward Ben Woodburn make his senior Wales debut.
Woodburn became Liverpool’s youngest ever goal-scorer in November when he scored against Leeds United in the League Cup and has previously represented Wales at youth level.
But Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has questioned the timing of his call-up and expressed reservations about Coleman’s failure to call him to speak about the player.
Woodburn is also coveted by England, but will not be eligible to play for anyone else once he has represented Wales in a competitive fixture.
Ireland coach Martin O’Neill goes into the game missing a host of first-team regulars.
Shane Duffy, Ciaran Clark, Wes Hoolahan, Harry Arter and Daryl Murphy are all injured and Robbie Brady suspended, while Everton midfielder James McCarthy is doubtful with a hamstring problem.
Ireland are due to play tribute to Derry City captain Ryan McBride, who died suddenly on Sunday at the age of 27.
West Bromwich Albion winger James McClean, a close friend of McBride, was given leave to visit his family ahead of McBride’s funeral on Thursday.
McClean will wear the number five shirt in tribute to McBride during the game.
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