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Russian threat to Welsh dream

Published: Friday 14 November 2003, 22.04CET
A nation of three million will have designs on beating a country 50 times its size when Wales take on Russia.

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Published: Friday 14 November 2003, 22.04CET

Russian threat to Welsh dream

A nation of three million will have designs on beating a country 50 times its size when Wales take on Russia.

By Trevor Haylett in Moscow

There may be a stark contrast between the size of the two countries meeting in Moscow on Saturday, but their aim is the same - a place in Portugal.

Form favours Russia
Wales arrive in Russia without three key players, with a doubt over another, and all too aware that while they finished the qualifying campaign on a losing streak, the hosts ended theirs with a flourish. That means a tall order for Wales, a nation of just three million inhabitants, taking on a country who carry the hopes of around 50 times that number. Yet Welsh manager Mark Hughes believes they can reach their first major finals since 1958 having made the play-offs.

Welsh doubts
"The hard part is qualifying," Hughes said on the eve of the first leg. "We have stumbled over the line in the last few qualifying games but these are two separate matches and I do not think anything that happened before will have an impact tomorrow." His major talents in qualifying included Ryan Giggs, John Hartson, Craig Bellamy and Simon Davies, but injury sidelines the latter two. However, Hughes warns that every member of his team "must give their best ever performances for Wales" if they are to go through.

'Accomplished team'
"It will be difficult, Russia are an accomplished team," he added. "Physically, they have a real presence but we have players who can cause problems for any team in the world. Four years' hard work comes down to 180 minutes of football and we are determined to give it our best shot."

Formidable record
Russia have lost only once in a qualifying game in Moscow, and before them the Soviet Union were never defeated in such a fixture there. After completing their Group 10 campaign with two successive victories while scoring seven goals - four against Switzerland who qualified automatically - they have the ability to build up the lead they need at the Lokomotiv stadium ahead of Wednesday's return in Cardiff.

Yartsev's warning
Yet the home camp are also feeling the pressure. Georgi Yartsev, appointed caretaker coach in August, has put off all talks aimed at extending his stay with the national team until after the play-offs, and is concerned that Wales are not being taken seriously in all quarters. "I am worried we might be underrating them and we must get rid of this," said Yartsev. "Wales are a powerful team who finished second in a strong group. There are a few players of European and even world class in their squad and it will not be easy."

Evseev concern
Yartsev has fewer injury worries than Wales, who are also missing Mark Pembridge, though Robbie Savage is likely to be fit after achilles and calf problems. However, the coach does have a concern over the readiness of Vadim Evseev who travelled to Germany this week where his daughter underwent heart surgery, and Andrei Kariaka has also missed two weeks of training.

Bulykin form
Russia remember their play-off disappointment six years ago when Italy beat them to a place in the 1998 FIFA World Cup. The striking form of Dmitri Bulykin, who scored a hat-trick against Switzerland in September, may help them wipe out that bad memory.

Last updated: 14/11/03 23.34CET