By Jason Gee
If Mark Hughes was not already a hero in the Welsh valleys after a prodigious playing career, his name will echo forever more there after his side outplayed and defeated the aristocrats of Italy at a packed Millennium Stadium in Cardiff last night.
Goals from Simon Davies and Craig Bellamy either side of an Alessandro Del Piero free-kick earned Wales three more points and top spot in EURO 2004™ qualifying Group 9. "It's a wonderful feeling, the players were absolutely superb and they should be very proud," Hughes said after the most impressive win of his three-year tenure as Wales manager.
'We cannot get carried away'
Wales, who were ranked below the world's top 100 nations until recently, are aiming to qualify for their first major championship finals since the 1958 FIFA World Cup. "It's one of the best performances you will have seen here for many years. But we cannot get carried away. The win tonight and over Finland [in Wales’s first qualifier last month] will count for nothing if we don't go on and finish the job."
On a night when Europe's minnows once again proved the gap between them and the more established nations is contracting, Northern Ireland's manager Sammy McIlroy was overjoyed to have seen his injury-ravaged team earn a draw in their Group 9 tie against Ukraine in Belfast.
'Hope for the future'
"I thought our effort was excellent and I couldn't fault them for the work they put in," he said. "There is a lot of young players in the team and that gives me hope for the future. They gave me everything against the side ranked much higher than us in the world."
'Learned our lesson'
F.Y.R. Macedonia, who were extremely unlucky to lose to Turkey at the weekend, went one better against England in Southampton. After earning a 2-2 draw against Sven-Göran Eriksson’s side in last night's Group 7 qualifier having twice taken the lead, the Macedonian coach Nikola Ilievski said: "I'm very pleased with what we have achieved with such a young team. We missed our chance to draw with Turkey last weekend and we learned our lesson."
The Faroe Islands have already put themselves on the map after some impressive performances in Group 5 and last night they pushed Germany all the way, a second-half goal from striker Miroslav Klose scraping a 2-1 victory for the FIFA World Cup runners-up in Hannover. And still the Faroes might have levelled after substitute Hjalgrim Elttoer hit the post seven minutes from time.
'We can play'
"That was our best away game ever," said the Faroes' Danish coach Henrik Larsen, whose team also led Scotland 2-0 last month before being pegged back for a draw. "I am proud of my players. The whole country will be pleased. We showed the world that we can play good football."
Battle for Bulgaria
Bulgaria, too, were made to work hard for their third successive Group 8 win against a determined Andorra, but shaded the encounter 2-1 in Sofia after goals from Georgi Chilikov and Krassimir Balakov. But still Andorra can be proud after Antonio Lima scored a consolation goal ten minutes from time.
Yet Bulgaria coach Plamen Markov felt his side were always in control. He said: "I don't think that the win was hard, I believe that we dominated the game throughout the whole match. We made two mistakes in the whole 90 minutes and conceded one goal."
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