By Iain SpraggWales may have enjoyed an inspirational UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifying campaign so far, but they know that there is still much work to do. With group favourites Italy breathing down their necks in the race to top Group 9, Mark Hughes' side are well aware that their rearranged match against Serbia and Montenegro this Wednesday is of paramount importance.
Four consecutive wins have given Wales an unexpected two-point lead in their section - with a game in hand over the Azzurri to boot. Another victory in Belgrade would put them five points clear of their nearest rivals. However, defeat would further increase the pressure ahead of the crucial encounter against the Italians in Milan on 6 September.
Ryan Giggs believes Wales need to adopt a positive attitude in this pivotal match. "
This is our game in hand on Italy and it's absolutely vital we capitalise on that," the Manchester United FC winger told uefa.com. "We know we'll go to Italy in September as group leaders whatever the result this week, but it will make the world of difference to morale if we go there with a five-point cushion, rather than two or three. We've got used to winning games in the last year or so and it's important we go to Italy next month with our confidence intact.
"We haven't played Serbia and Montenegro yet in this qualifying campaign and that always adds an element of uncertainty," Giggs said. "They're off the pace at the moment in terms of pushing for a top-two finish in the group, but they held Italy to a draw in Naples last year and by all accounts were unfortunate not to take all three points, so it's vital we remember they're a team of huge potential. The consistency may have been lacking but they're clearly capable of producing big performances."
The original fixture between the two countries in March was postponed for security reasons. The timing of this rearranged game has given little time for the Welsh players - most of whom play in the English Premiership - to recover from the opening fixtures of their domestic season.
Giggs, though, refuses to complain about this. "In an ideal world we'd have a full week to prepare the squad for the match rather than a few days, but
I am not going to start complaining about the fixture list now," he said. "We've got a job to do and we have to get on with it. We knew that the rearranged game would have to be squeezed in somewhere later on and I suppose now is as good a time as any. We'll leave other people to debate the fixture list while we concentrate on the job in hand."
Hughes' team have been dealt a double blow ahead of the match, with news that striker John Hartson and defender Andy Melville will both miss the trip with injuries. But, with confidence sky high in the camp, they will still be confident of taking all three points from inconsistent opponents. If that objective is achieved, Wales will be on the brink of their first major tournament since the 1958 FIFA World Cup.
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