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Speed hopes to upset the odds

Wales captain Gary Speed admits the play-off with Russia is their biggest test for a decade.

By Julia Court

It is nearly a decade ago to the day that Wales blew their chances of reaching the 1994 FIFA World Cup by losing 2-1 to Romania in their final qualifier at the Cardiff Arms Park. But Welsh captain Gary Speed is determined to make amends against Russia at the Lokomotiv stadium in Moscow on Saturday in the first leg of the UEFA EURO 2004™ play-offs.

Enduring image
Speed told uefa.com: "There are a few of us in the current Wales team that were involved in that match, but the only thing it goes to show is that chances for Wales to play in a major competition do not come along very often, so when they do come you have got to grab it with both hands." A penalty miss by Paul Bodin with the score at 1-1 remains the enduring image of the match on the site of the recently built Millennium Stadium, which will be packed for the return leg as Wales seek their first major qualification since 1958.

Confidence counts
"The national side has been transformed under Mark Hughes," the 34-year-old Speed continued. "Everything has changed since he has come in - from the suits we wear, to where we stay and how we travel. But it is not just that we are a more professional outfit, Sparky [Hughes] has given us the most important thing for any team to have and that is confidence."

Historic victory
Despite a perfect record in their first four qualifying games, including a memorable victory against eventual group winners Italy last October, Welsh fortunes dipped with defeats in Serbia and Montenegro and Italy which saw them surrender top spot. Then their formidable home record under Mark Hughes took a dent with a draw against Finland and defeat by Serbia and Montenegro.

Russian rivals
They face a Russia side who won all four of their home Group 10 matches, scoring eleven goals in the process. Speed said: "I am glad in a way that the second leg is at the Millennium Stadium. We have got a good home record and whatever happens in Russia we will have the crowd behind us for the final hurdle."

Selection dilemmas
Wales are going into the tie with key players Craig Bellamy and Simon Davies out and Mark Pembridge doubtful. Speed may revert to central midfield as opposed to the left-back position he has adopted since Hughes took over as manager, but insists there can be no excuses come Saturday.

'Strength in depth'
"I think any team is lucky to have a full squad available at any one time and we have got enough strength in depth in the Wales squad right now to put out a good side, even with injuries," said Speed. "This week is without a doubt the biggest test to the current Wales side. We may have put in some great performances and raised our stock in the last couple of years, but unless we qualify we won't have proved anything."

Final chance?
While many predict this could be Speed's final chance to make it to a major international competition, he refuses to be drawn into any speculation about his retirement. "I am still feeling good and I am happy with my game at the moment so I will not be making any decisions about my international future right now whether we qualify or not," said Speed.

Gary Speed's personal website is at www.icons.com