5 talking points ahead of Wales’ crunch Euro 2020 qualifier against Azerbaijan

Wales meet Azerbaijan in a crucial Euro 2020 qualifier in Baku on Saturday.

Ryan Giggs’ side are aiming to keep their automatic qualification hopes alive ahead of their final game against Hungary in Cardiff on Tuesday.

Here, the PA news agency looks at the main talking points around the game.

Bale fitness

Wales v Croatia – UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifying – Group E – Cardiff City Stadium
Gareth Bale has declared himself fit for Wales’ Euro 2020 qualifier despite not having played for Real Madrid for six weeks (Nigel French/PA)

Gareth Bale’s fitness has been the subject of almost daily bulletins since Wales’ 1-1 draw against Croatia last month. Bale was limping in the final stages of that Euro 2020 qualifier, with manager Ryan Giggs describing it straight after the game as a bout of cramp. It was later discovered to be a calf injury and Bale has not played for Real Madrid since. But Bale has trained fully this week and seems certain to start in Baku. The question is can he play two 90-minute games in the space of four days?

Ramsey return

It is almost exactly 12 months since Aaron Ramsey last pulled on a Wales shirt. During that time the midfielder has swapped Arsenal for Juventus and now counts Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala as team-mates. Ramsey’s injury problems have prevented him from playing a single minute of Wales’ Euro 2020 qualifying campaign and how the Dragons have missed his creative influence. Ramsey’s return could not be more timely and his passing ability could be the difference in Wales securing a top-two spot or having to settle for the play-offs in March.

Defensive dilemma

Wales v Republic of Ireland – UEFA Nations League – League B – Group 4 – Cardiff City Stadium
Skipper Ashley Williams is hoping for a Wales recall in Azerbaijan on Saturday (Mike Egerton/PA)

Finding an established centre-back pairing has eluded Giggs throughout Euro 2020 qualification with injuries weakening his hand. Chris Mepham and Joe Rodon gave notice against Azerbaijan in September that they are probably the future. But Mepham was injured last month, leaving Rodon and Charlton’s Tom Lockyer to impress against Slovakia and Croatia. Swansea centre-back Joe Rodon is unavailable this time after ankle surgery. Lockyer is likely to start in Baku. But does Giggs recall veteran captain Ashley Williams, in form at Bristol City, or Mepham, currently out of favour at Bournemouth? It is a big call.

Plugging Allen gap

Albania v Wales – International Friendly – Elbasan Arena
Wales are without the suspended Joe Allen in Azerbaijan (Adam Davy/PA)

Losing Joe Allen to suspension after the Stoke man picked up his third booking in qualifying against Croatia is a huge blow to Wales. Allen is a huge influence in that crucial midfield department, so adept at breaking up opposition attacks and getting Wales on the front foot. Ethan Ampadu must take on more responsibility in front of the back four in Allen’s absence. But who joins him? Giggs’ options seem to be playing the inexperienced Joe Morrell or dropping Ramsey into a deeper role, which is not the Juventus man’s natural game.

Tight finish

  1. Croatia Pld 7 Pts 14
  2. Hungary Pld 7 Pts 12
  3. Slovakia Pld 6 Pts 10
  4. Wales Pld 6 Pts 8
  5. Azerbaijan Pld 6 Pts 1

Wales probably need to win their final two games in a complicated picture to secure automatic qualification for the 2020 European Championship finals. Four points would be enough if results elsewhere were to go their way. Beating Azerbaijan and Hungary would be enough, as long as Slovakia do not win their final two games. Slovakia finish away to group leaders Croatia and at home to Azerbaijan. Wales would still finish second by drawing in Azerbaijan and beating Hungary by at least two goals – if Slovakia did not pick up more than two points in the last round of fixtures. Wales would have to settle for a likely play-off spot were they to lose in Azerbaijan or fail to beat Hungary.

Football Paradise Staff Reporter

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