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Winning without Bale is a big ask, but Wales have to stay strong...

Byline: PAUL ABBANDONATO Head of Sport paul.abbandonato@walesonline.co.uk

WALES' stunning success in recent years has been built upon their Together Stronger mantra.

Nobody has bought into it more than Gareth Bale, the Real Madrid superstar and Wales talisman who scores the goals and sets them up, but also wins the headers, clears off the line and covers every blade of grass for his country.

Never will the FAW's slogan come under greater scrutiny than in the World Cup crunch against Georgia and the Republic of Ireland.

Wales hate the suggestion they are a one-man team. Which they most certainly are not, of course.

But the fans aren't daft. Within the team frame, it is Bale's brilliance that has made the difference.

Nobody in the history of international football can have been more influential than he was in getting a country to a major finals, Bale responsible for more than 75 per cent of Wales' goals as they qualified for Euro 2016.

Bale was then superb in France and has continued to be a threat in this World Cup campaign, if not at such a high level of performance.

You just sensed that come the real business end of the campaign, Bale was ready to explode, return to his majestic best and drive us over the qualifying line again.

To lose him through injury, then, is as big a blow as any country on earth could possibly be dealt. Brazil would be able to cover the loss of Neymar better, Argentina Messi, even Portugal with Ronaldo.

Wales without Bale, on the other hand? Well, it's something we just didn't want to contemplate.

However, it is what it is and Wales have to adopt as positive a mind-set as possible.

So, how do you win two potentially generation-defining matches in World Cup parlance without your indisputably number one player? To be blunt, the facts and figures don't make pretty reading. Wales haven't won a competitive match when their talisman has been absent for four years, stretching back to a 1-0 triumph over Macedonia towards the tail-end of the last World Cup campaign.

In fact, of the 32 matches Wales have played without Bale since his debut in 2006, they have won just seven. Only two of those were competitive fixtures - away to Azerbaijan in 2009 and that 2013 Cardiff clash with Macedonia.

The Wales minus Bale record reads played 32, won 7, drew 9, lost 16.

On the other hand, confidence needs to be drawn from the last three qualifiers Bale has missed. 1-0 versus Macedonia, plus 1-1 in Belgium and 1-1 in Serbia.

No mean feat those last two results. Trouble is, draws won't be good enough this time. Wales have to go for the jugular and what happens in Tbilisi on Friday night will set the tone for Ireland at home the following Monday.

Win the first one and we can be confident of winning the second. Draw, or lose, against the Georgians and it will put Wales on the back-foot for the sell-out clash with Ireland.

Georgia away was always going to be a banana skin of a game for Wales which has suddenly got a lot slippier.

Suddenly the man who takes the free-kicks, whips in shots from outside the box, wins the headers at corners and has the blinding pace to soar past defenders is absent. Our leader is missing, so a new game-plan is required.

Wales have to do it without the very player so much has been built around. It hasn't officially been the case of get the ball and give it to Gareth, but to some that is what it has seemed like at times.

Coleman has been planning for this eventuality for a while, knowing from the moment Bale limped out of his last Real Madrid game that he wouldn't be available for Wales.

It's far too simplistic to say 'Oh, just throw in Ben Woodburn as a like-for-like replacement.' That would place far too much pressure upon his 17-year-old shoulders, even if the Liverpool teen wonder has already demonstrated his immense qualities by twice rescuing Wales' World Cup dream last time out.

Coleman is far more likely to go with one of Tom Lawrence or Hal Robson-Kanu as Bale's stand-in.

But Woodburn can still be a key part of the equation as a super-sub again, just as he was in winning the game against Austria and brilliantly setting up Robson-Kanu's opening goal in Moldova.

Georgia will have far more of the ball than Moldova, we saw their ability first hand during the 1-1 draw at Cardiff City Stadium.

So, one way of winning is for Wales to stay compact and organised, keep the game tight and then hope Woodburn can produce his moment of magic again in the closing 20 minutes.

Another option is the default position above, only this time grabbing a West Brom-type 1-0 win with a setpiece goal at some stage.

Of course, Wales could go out there and wow us with a resounding 3-0 victory.

But it's more likely to be one of the scenarios outlined.

It's not the first time Wales have been without a kingpin just as crunch time arrives.

Mark Hughes was missing for the win-or-bust World Cup showdown with Romania back in 1993.

Craig Bellamy was injured when Wales played Russia in the play-off to qualify for the 2004 Euros.

More recently, Aaron Ramsey, of course, was banned from the Euro 2016 semi-final against Portugal. Ben Davies, too.

Compared to past Wales managers, by and large Coleman has been dealt a hugely positive hand when it comes to injuries.

But Bale's absence is more significant than that of Hughes, Bellamy or Ramsey in the past.

Just when it matters most, Wales are without their real leader out on the pitch, the man whose world-class ability and deeds inspire others to new heights.

The timing could not be worse. But let's remember this is not a vintage Romania, Russia or Portugal that Wales are facing on this occasion.

It's Georgia, ranked 103rd in the world, and a very, very ordinary Ireland side.

Win in Tbilisi, and raw passion can get Wales through against the Irish at their Cardiff City Stadium fortress.

No-one will be cheering for the men in red louder than Gareth Bale himself.

Together Stronger. This time it needs to be Without, Just as Strong.

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Gareth Bale is set to miss the huge World Cup qualifier double-header with Georgia and Republic of Ireland
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Oct 4, 2017
Words:1085
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