MICHAEL PEARLMAN SAYS: Wales should be brimming with confidence over reaching 2016 European Championships
10:07am Tuesday 25th February 2014 in Sport
Wales' Gareth Bale (centre) is challenged by Croatia's Mateo Kovacic (right) during the FIFA World Cup Qualifying, Group A match at the Liberty Stadium, Swansea. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday March 26, 2013. See PA story SOCCER Wa
WHEN the football powerhouse nations of Bosnia and Israel contest the European Championships final in Paris in the summer of 2016, no Welsh football fan will be surprised.
It might come as a shock to many in the footballing world, being as how neither side in even considered a remote contender at this point in time, but on this side of the Severn Bridge, we are all braced for it.
It'll be especially gratifying when Israel, the team of the tournament, knock out Belgium in the semi-finals, bearing in mind Belgium, we should note, are the finest nation on the planet and the key reason why Wales missed yet another major footballing tournament.
Because from the reaction to Sunday's draw, I can only presume I am in fact the only person interested in the fortunes of the Welsh national team not already covering my backside and making excuses for why a very nice looking group rounded out by Cyprus and Andorra, is going to go so horribly awry.
From where I'm sitting, Wales have just been handed as easy a group as you could ever possibly dream to have from pot four, where the expectation absolutely should be that there will be three vastly better sides in your way.
Wales not only have their easiest group in a matter of years, probably decades, but it comes at the exact right time in both their evolution, and that of the European Championships.
In the past, getting to the Euros has been arguably harder even than reaching a World Cup, with sometimes only the group winner guaranteed a place at the finals. With just 16 teams qualifying from over 50 (with that number sometimes as low as 14 thanks to joint hosts getting a bye) it's been practically impossible for Wales.
The revamped European Championships, now 33% better (or worse, depending on if you're a quality or a quantity type of guy or girl), with 24 teams, is pretty damn easy to qualify for.
You don't need to win the group, or even come second, to potentially still be on the plane to France.
All but one of the third placed sides in the qualifying groups will reach a play-off.
But these won't be your usual play-offs. No immense quality. No teams like Russia, France, or Portugal, in all likelihood. If Wales finish third they are more likely to meet an Estonia or a Northern Ireland in the play-off stage because even if the big boys slip, they'll still come second in these diluted groups.
So where exactly, have the Welsh football public found all this doom, gloom and cause for pessimism?
Judging by instant reactions on Twitter, it seemed to happen simply by virtue of Belgium coming out of the hat in Group B instead of a Hungary or Republic of Ireland.
But come on now, we aren't talking about Germany here.
We are talking a Belgium who only beat Wales 2-0 against ten men for 80 minutes in Cardiff and who drew 0-0 at home to a depleted Dragons side at the end of the campaign.
Belgium, at home, are beatable and even with that said, they are head and shoulders the best team in European Championship qualifying Group B.
Wales can and should be aiming to finish right on their shoulder. Spare me any doom and gloom scenarios as to why that shouldn't be so.
So Israel finished third in their World Cup qualifying group and got 14 points. So what?
The teams that finished below Israel were Azerbaijan, Northern Ireland and Luxembourg. Hardly testing. I'd bank on Wales taking 16 points at least from those three.
Equally telling, is the tale of woe that apparently is drawing Bosnia, who will go to the World Cup as the winner of qualifying Group G.
Bosnia earned 25 points throughout the campaign and narrowly edged out the second placed team.
But this was hardly Germany piping Russia or Belgium holding off a quality Croatian side.
Bosnia beat out Greece, in a group also containing Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia and Liechtenstein.
I see no reason why Wales couldn't have won that same group.
Bosnia were inspired by Manchester City's Edin Dzeko, their top scorer and talisman. He's a very good player.
But Wales' talisman is one of the best five players on the planet. Not to mention the most expensive.
And right behind him is Aaron Ramsey. A guy who has outshone about £100 million worth of World Cup 2014-bound talismanic talent in the form of Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla in Arsenal's midfield this season.
Wales have a decent crop of players. Wales have plenty of players playing regularly in the Premier League and Championship.
It wasn't always so. But the youth movement started out of necessity by John Toshack alienating an entire generation of players, has paid dividends.
Wayne Hennessey is a good goalkeeper, Swansea provide three very good defenders, Chris Gunter is solid and James Collins is somewhat revived.
Wales are stacked with decent midfielders, Andy King, Joe Ledley, Joe Allen and Jack Collison all likely to be playing in the Premier League next term and able to well compliment Ramsey who can become one of Europe's best.
In attack, simply, it's time for Sam Vokes.
We've waited for years for someone to give Vokes regular first team football and this season it's finally happened at Turf Moor as he's been part of the amazing season Burnley are having.
He's well on his way to scoring 20 Championship goals and that'll do. Wales have no need whatsoever for a killer striker who converts every chance but needs a team built around him.
They already have that player, he just attacks from deeper. His name is Gareth Bale. Can Vokes be a strong presence in attack to hold up the ball and allow Bale to shine in a free role? Of course he can.
Wales have the makings of a very good side and they should be seriously positive about their chances in qualifying Group B of progressing to the European Championships. I honestly don't see why they shouldn't be aiming to compete to win the group outright. The play-offs should be viewed as their worst case scenario.
And don't let anyone tell you differently.
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