Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters
Did a pair of woefully pale performances against Iran spell the beginning of the end for Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey? He was the elephant in the room after Wales’ defeat on Friday but Rob Page swallowed the question quickly and, such was the manager’s disappointment after a jarring defeat that left his side staring at elimination, insisted he didn’t it was time. Page, however, admitted Wales were being punished because too many key players missed the opportunity.
Bale, Wales’ all-time leading men’s goalscorer and now most capped player, is almost unanimously regarded as the team’s greatest export. For a few years, no matter how many minutes he accumulated at club level, he was able to put on a Wales shirt, find a way to manipulate matches and, quite frankly, make a lot of people look stupid. Perhaps he will do it again against England on Tuesday, but according to recent evidence this tournament has been a tough one. Ramsey too should have been sacrificed long before Wayne Hennessey was sent off against Iran with four minutes of regulation time to play.
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It’s impossible to disguise how disappointing Wales, and particularly its protagonists, were in their first World Cup for 64 years. Bale offered almost nothing, except to win and then take a penalty against the United States. For the first 13 minutes against Iran, his only touch and contribution was kick-off. Ramsey went blonde on the eve of the tournament, providing a promising parallel to him when he dyed his hair for Euro 2016 in France, but against Iran he gave away more ball than any other player on the pitch. Hennessey, among the three centurions in the Wales team, also experienced a nightmarish afternoon. Bale and Ramsey, however, appeared haunted by the legendary and uncharted success of the past.
The way Bale, 33, and Ramsey, nearly 32, struggled their way around the pitch, struggling towards the ball in one go and towards the opponent the next, should come as no surprise given the scarcity of minutes they have played this year. Ramsey has started 10 league games in 2022; Bale only three – two games in five days seemed like a shock to the system. Bale, accustomed to the luxury of a week to recover between games at Los Angeles FC, admitted it took him a while to feel his legs after going the distance against the United States, completing 104 minutes , and four days later – almost – managed another 102 minutes. Prior to Monday, Bale had played 36 minutes since September.
At some point it was inevitable that the music would stop. “That’s the problem we always have, asking players who don’t play for their clubs to come and give one performance after another,” said Page. “We will have to look into it and, if necessary, we will have to make changes to refresh it.”
The warning signs were there. Joe Allen, a tidy and reliable midfield announcer, has been portrayed as something of a messiah in some quarters on news of his return from a hamstring injury. He’s saying something when, compared to Allen, Wales’ hopes of turning the game around rested on a 32-year-old who has spent the last five seasons in the Championship, his best days undeniably behind him. Allen replaced Ethan Ampadu on Friday in what was, surprisingly, a similar substitution. Suddenly, after more than two months on the sidelines, it was time for Allen to operate as a lone firefighter in an uncontrollable blaze. Unsurprisingly, he too struggled, squandering possession in the build-up to both of Iran’s injury-time goals.
Page’s post-match demeanor was that of a manager disillusioned with senior players, but he will surely also reflect on whether he made the right choices. Ampadu was valiant but submerged at the base of midfield. Joe Morrell, Page’s regular until Qatar, limited himself to playing 10 minutes of added time against the USA, but would certainly have helped balance midfield, and Page’s determination to play against Harry Wilson, Ramsey and Bale left the his defense. Joe Rodon repeatedly had to fend off Iranian attackers in one-on-one scenarios.
It’s hard not to think that Wales would have been better served with Bale coming on from the right, with Kieffer Moore as a focal point in the center and Daniel James, a dependable and tenacious winger, on the opposite wing. James came off the bench on Friday alongside Brennan Johnson, who has often provided Wales with welcome enthusiasm as a substitute, albeit too little too late. Johnson, who played for the England U17s, is sure to start on Tuesday.
England’s draw with the United States gives Wales a sliver of hope to progress, but the required swaps look far-fetched. Wales must beat England – a feat they haven’t achieved since 1984 – and hope that Iran and the United States finish in a draw, or else they must beat England by four goals.
Before England’s stalemate on Friday, Page seemed resigned to his side’s fate, unable to shake the feeling that the end was near. “We want to finish the competition on a high note,” he said.