Euro 2016: What Wales need to do to qualify for the finals in France

Gareth Bale
Gareth Bale scored his 17th international goal on his 50th appearance for Wales

If it wasn't for Wales' football history there would be a rush to the travel agents and a run on French phrase books.

Yet after Gareth Bale's goal gave Wales an unforgettable 1-0 victory over Euro 2016 Group B big guns Belgium, it took the one of the vanquished to speak the words Welsh football fans still hesitate to utter.

Asked if Wales would qualify for the finals in France next summer, Belgium and Chelsea goalkeeper Thibault Courtois said: "Yes, I think there is no doubt about that."

A glance at the group table, with Wales the only unbeaten side suggests Courtois' confidence in Welsh destiny is not misplaced.

Chris Coleman's men are top of the section, three points ahead of group favourites Belgium and five clear of third placed Israel, in the battle for one of the two qualification spots.

And yet still no Welsh fan wants to tempt fate. Wales have not qualified for the finals of a major tournament since 1958 - the disappointments and near misses are indelibly etched in the memory.

Depending on their age, the average Wales fan can recite the events which have become scars on a national psyche.

Wales' remaining Euro 2016 qualifiers
3 Sep 2015: Cyprus (a)10 Oct 2015: Bosnia-Hercegovina (a)
6 Sep 2015: Israel (h)13 Oct 2015:Andorra (h)

From the infamous Joe Jordan "handball" in the 1978 World Cup qualifier against Scotland at Anfield to the 2-1 defeat by Romania in 1993, as a nation was gearing itself for the USA World Cup and ended up agonising with Paul Bodin over his missed penalty.

Then 10 years later, Mark Hughes' Wales side fell at the European Championship play-off hurdle against Russia with a 1-0 second leg defeat, after appearing to have done the hard work with a goalless first leg draw in Moscow.

So you will understand the reluctance to purchase the travel guides for Paris, Nice, Marseille and the rest of the Euro 2016 venues.

However, this time really does seem different and the maths are looking beyond promising. Frankly, the reasoning of Courtois was faultless.

Wales have four games with which to seal their destiny.

Early next season they have a testing double-header away to Cyprus and at home to Israel, before a trip to Bosnia-Hercegovina and a finale when they entertain whipping boys Andorra.

That Andorra game is already looking like a party, for Wales might have clinched one of the top two spots by then. If they haven't, it will be a Wales banker - an insurance policy against a late wobble.

A tally of 20 points will surely guarantee a top-two spot but, as has been previously stated in these columns, 18 or even 17 may be ample.

Bosnia's change of coach seems to have paid off with their 3-1 victory over Israel as Wales were beating Belgium.

table

Israel's third straight defeat after winning their first three qualifiers suggests the wheels are off their bandwagon, and Bosnia refuse to be written off. But even if they win every match, Bosnia can only get to 20.

The stirring of the side who were actually top seeds when the draw was made for these qualifiers looks too late to affect Welsh progress.

Bosnia travel to a wounded Belgium next. Before coming to grief at Cardiff City Stadium, the Belgians had lost just once in 17 games - a 1-0 defeat by Argentina in the 2014 World Cup quarter-final in Brazil.

A second consecutive defeat in the group would be seismic for Belgium and, frankly, uncharacteristic for a "Golden Generation" who had risen to second in the world rankings.

With Belgium also still to travel to Cyprus and playing hosts to Israel in their final group game, it's fair to say Eden Hazard and his Red Devils will now become all Welsh' fans' second team for the remaining qualifiers.

Should things get tight at the top, Wales are already looking strong in the head-to-head reckoning with wins over Belgium, Israel and Cyprus, their closest contenders.

But the best part of the current Welsh success is the fact the team have done it all by themselves.

Or rather, the Wales side with the help of some extraordinary fan support, has climbed to pole position without outside help.

The Football Association of Wales branding of 'Together Stronger' appears prophetic.

The spontaneous renditions of the Welsh national anthem when Coleman's team were under the cosh against Belgium was inspiring to the team and to those who witnessed it.

The bedrock of the success to date has been the unstinting belief of Coleman's squad that their time has come.

Bale is the talisman who just loves to deliver for his country. Aaron Ramsey is the creative player Wales have so often lacked. Captain Ashley Williams is an immense presence when resolve is required.

Players such as Chris Gunter and Joe Ledley have witnessed the previous disappointments and are driven to put the record straight. Both were outstanding against Belgium.

And even the absence of Liverpool's Joe Allen for the trip to Cyprus after he collected a third tournament yellow card against Belgium should not be too much of a worry.

Chris Coleman and Hal Robson-Kanu
Chris Coleman's side are unbeaten in six qualifiers - the best ever run by a Welsh side in one campaign

Allen has been excellent in the group so far. But this Wales squad has depth and, as surprise starter Jazz Richards demonstrated against the Belgians, the unsung are ready to step up when required.

The sense of national expectancy for their football team has never been so keen. Yet Coleman - as he has throughout this campaign - embraces it not as a burden, but a challenge to be conquered.

For many Welsh fans, the summer will drag as they anticipate an autumn of such promise.

A win in Cyprus would ostensibly put Wales on the brink. Even with a punishing travel schedule to be ready for Israel at home a few days later, a fervent night can be expected for the next Wales occasion at Cardiff City Stadium.

Wales then go to Bosnia knowing they finish with Andorra. It would be extraordinary if the mountain-top part-timers were to be as troublesome as they were in the opening game of the group.

World Cup winner Thierry Henry recently said this Wales squad had already achieved success by making a nation "believe".

Now Wales waits for Coleman and his squad to banish the heartache of the past.

Inevitably, their thoughts shaped by history, some will still fear the worse, an unexpected calamity.

But that is no part of this Welsh squad's vocabulary, led by an ebullient Coleman, whose approach is to forget fear. Instead he exhorts: "Bring it on."

The dwindling number of sceptics should be reassured by the parting words of Courtois who, gracious in defeat, said of Wales: "They are a strong team and they will not let it go."

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