The 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign has reached a crucial stage as Cymru head to the Czech Republic and Estonia over the course of the next few days for two vital Group E fixtures.
Currently sitting third in the standings behind the Czech Republic and leaders Belgium, Cymru claimed four points last month but were left frustrated as they failed to capitalise on the 3-2 win over Belarus as Estonia claimed a surprise point in a 0-0 draw in Cardiff a few days later. Captain Gareth Bale was the hat-trick hero for Cymru in Kazan, but will miss this international window through injury.
THE STORY SO FAR
The campaign began in March as Cymru suffered a 3-1 defeat against Belgium in Leuven. Despite Harry Wilson opening the scoring for Rob Page's side, goals from Kevin De Bryne, Thorgan Hazard and Romelu Lukaku ensured that Roberto Martinez's side would open the group with a victory. Meanwhile, the Czech Republic made light work of Estonia as they claimed a 6-2 win in Lublin with Tomáš Souček scoring three goals in the convincing victory.
Although Belgium were held to a 1-1 draw against the Czech Republic, they responded by defeating Belarus 8-0 to claim seven points from a possible nine. Belarus had beaten Estonia 4-2 in Minsk a few days earlier, while Cymru claimed an impressive and vital 1-0 win over the Czech Republic in Cardiff thanks to a late header from Daniel James. “It's a massive result especially after the first game,” said James to Sky Sports. “We knew we had to pick ourselves up and that it would be a tough game and we fought right to the end.”
Following a summer dominated by the EURO finals, the qualifying campaign resumed last month as Belgium continued their impressive form by claiming another nine points with respective 5-2, 3-0 and 1-0 victories over Estonia, Czech Republic and Belarus. Meanwhile, the Czech Republic could also only defeat Belarus by a single goal as Antonín Barák proved to be the difference between the two teams in Ostrava. Cymru collected four points in September, and now sit level on points with the Czech Republic with a game in hand.
Having already played six games, Belgium will sit out this round of games as their focus switches to the finals of the UEFA Nations League. However, while the Red Devils hold a commanding lead at the top of the group, there is still plenty to play for this month. Cymru head to the Czech Republic on Friday while Estonia host Belarus, before the Czech Republic head to Kazan to face Belarus on Monday as Cymru head to Tallinn to take on Estonia. Belgium are the only undefeated team in Group E, while Estonia are still looking for their first victory.
“We've got to win every game and that's why we're disappointed,” explained Rob Page to Sgorio following the 0-0 draw with Estonia last month. “We've got four points from six and we're disappointed because we came into this camp thinking that these were two winnable games. Football's never that easy, we know that, but we've fallen short by two points. So we need to go and put that right in the next camp.”
All 55 UEFA nations were drawn across ten groups of five and six teams, with all ten group winners automatically qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup finals which will take in Qatar in November and December next year. The ten group runners-up qualify for the play-offs, and will be joined by the two highest-ranked UEFA Nations League group winners who fail to finish in the top two positions of their qualifying group. The play-offs will comprise of three separate mini-tournaments, with the three play-off winners qualifying for the finals of the competition alongside the ten group winners. Qualifying will be completed in November 2021 with the play-offs taking place in March 2022.
A crucial factor for Cymru in this campaign could be the fact that Rob Page's side finished top of UEFA Nations League B4 in the 2020/21 edition of the tournament. Undefeated over six games, Cymru registered five victories including a decisive double over the Republic of Ireland and Finland in Cardiff back in November 2020 in the final round of games. Winning the Nations League group means that Cymru are very likely to claim a play-off place even if the side finish outside the top two positions of their qualifying group.