Wales v Austria
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Home advantage looks huge for Wales
There was much excitement when the draw for the World Cup play-offs threw up a potential showdown between Wales and Scotland for the right to book a place in Qatar.
However, an awful lot has to happen for that scenario to unfold.
Wales’ opponents in their one-legged semi-final, Austria, can’t be treated lightly while Scotland’s tie with Ukraine has understandably been put back after the Russian invasion.
Robert Page’s men gave themselves a chance of a first appearance at a World Cup since 1958 by finishing runners-up to Belgium in Group E – an impressive feat given that they had to hold off the Czech Republic to do so.
As it transpired, Wales had already secured a play-off spot due to a strong performance in the UEFA Nations League but finishing second in their group added a notable prize: home advantage.
That extends to the final as well so the potential Wales v Scotland showdown would take place in Cardiff.
Austria snuck through back door
Austria (16pts) actually finished only fourth in their World Cup qualifying group behind Denmark (27pts), Scotland (23pts) and Israel (16pts).
It meant they had to rely on performances in the Nations League to book a play-off spot.
Those 16 points from 10 matches were accrued via five wins and a draw, their four defeats coming against Denmark (twice), Scotland (home) and Israel (away).
Looking at the Austrians’ away form, they drew 2-2 in Scotland, won 2-0 in Moldova and the Faroe Islands, were blasted 5-2 in Israel and were edged out 1-0 in Denmark.
That meant an away record of won two, drew one, lost two, with nine goals scored and eight conceded.
They did at least finish off their campaign strongly, scoring 4-2 and 4-1 home wins over Israel and Moldova respectively.
Wales considered underdogs – why?
Despite home advantage, Robert Page’s men are seen as slight underdogs by the market.
Wales are 2.982/1 for the win, while Austria trade at 2.8615/8. The Draw is 3.185/40.
A check of the FIFA World Rankings shows Wales at 20th, 10 places above Austria in 30th.
Head-to-heads? That tips towards Wales too as they’ve won two and drawn one of the last three meetings with Austria, the most recent a 1-0 victory in a World Cup qualifier in September 2017.
It’s not entirely clear to me why Wales shouldn’t be favourites. Looking at recent home form they held Belgium 1-1 and prior to that thumped Belarus 5-1.
Their other home results in Group E were the key 1-0 win over the Czech Republic and a 0-0 with Estonia.
Widening the lens, Wales are unbeaten in their last 16 home matches in all competitions, winning 11 of those. That’s the best home run in their history.
The key has been keeping clean sheets and they’ve shut out the opposition 11 times in those 16 games, conceding just five goals.
On those numbers, there’s definite scope to look at Wales to win to nil and it’s a decent price at 4.3100/30. That’s the best bet of the night.
For many years, Wales fans will have been fearing the worst in a game like this. But the joy of Euro 2016 and another successful qualification for the Euros in 2020 has changed the script.
With this Welsh generation making history rather than being weighed down by it, the scene is set for a memorable night in Cardiff.
Ramsay may be best scorer option
The days of Gareth Bale playing the goalscoring hero are less frequent although it would be no surprise if he somehow pulled a rabbit from the hat again when his country needs him most.
He scored three times in World Cup qualifying – the hat-trick away to Belarus – and also assisted on three occasions.
Bale is short of game time but could still be a huge factor.
Aaron Ramsey may be the better value to score at 5.95/1 although Bale backers will be happy enough to take 4.3100/30 on their man.
Ramsey netted for Rangers at the weekend and has four goals in his last nine games for Wales.
For Austria, Marko Arnautovic has a record of exellence in World Cup qualifiers. He’s scored nine and assisted four in his last 14.
But this Welsh defence is a tough nut to crack and it could be a night of frustration for the former West Ham man.
Austria‘s two World Cup play-off campaigns have seen them eliminated – they lost 2-1 to Sweden in a single game in November 1973 and 6-0 on aggregate against Turkey in November 2001.