The Euro 2016 finals are getting closer, and ever more real. We're into 2016, and the initial euphoria of just qualifying is past. Wales fans are now moving onto the next stage - actually anticipating and planning for the tournament.
As Gareth Davies discusses in our issue 187, there's the whole new experience for Wales supporters of collecting our own Panini stickers; and the tortuous experience of applying for tickets and making travel arrangements; there is also the question of who Chris Coleman will take to France - which means watching nervously as star players try to negotiate the remaining months without injury, and monitoring the fringe and forgotten Welsh players' form.
The Wales supporters themselves are of course assessing their heroes' prospects of qualifying from our group, of beating Russia, England and Slovakia in each of the group games, and of going further into the knock-out phase of the tournament. For many, it's about the football, though some will have a bet if only in the hope it might help cover the costs of the trip.
But the opportunity to bet on Welsh prospects in the finals tournament is by no means confined to Welsh fans. There is a bewildering range Euro 2016 odds, not just outright odds on winning the tournament, but individual games, top scorers, combination bets etc. Wales may be 50/1 or more outsiders to finish as tournament winners, but Coleman's men do seem to be emerging as favourites to qualify from the group along with England - the relatively forgiving format means first, second and most third-placed teams progress. How far can we go? Well, if the professionals are to be believed, we've a good chance of reaching the quarter-finals and a fair (8/1) chance of reaching the semi-finals.
Heady stuff for supporters of a nation that for so many decades has only dreamed of one day just being at a major tournament. And, whatever the odds available, for many of the travelling Welsh army, seeing that become a reality is what they still wake up every day and remember, even while they make their preparations for the actual experience in June.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 19 January 2016 08:18
It's mid-week, and thoughts are turning already to the weekend's fixtures. These days, the avid football fan (or punter) can get fixtures, odds and previews of upcoming matches in any country or league of his choice. But this week, nowhere has a round of matches quite as climactic and significant as our own Dafabet Welsh Premier League.
For, despite numerous postponements threatening to disrupt the Welsh Premier League's plans for its decisive 22nd matchday, Saturday 16th January does, after all, see the final six games in the league's first phase fixtures all scheduled to run simultaneously, kicking off at 5.15pm. And the hard line taken by the league on rescheduling of the delayed games has been rewarded, as the make-up of the two second-phase groups is still at stake, with all to play for in the six matches. So let's take a look at the action in store, and the possible outcomes.
The most significant battle at this point of the season always surrounds the middle of the table: for everyone would prefer to be in the top six when the league splits into two after this weekend, free from relegation concerns and able to concentrate instead on trying to secure a lucrative adventure in Europe in July. The reality is that two places in the top six are still up for grabs, with five clubs going into this match-day hoping to occupy one of them when the final whistles sound just after 7pm on Saturday.
The five clubs whose fates, for the next three months at least, will be decided by the final round of games are Gap Connah's Quay, Newtown, Carmarthen Town, Aberystwyth Town and Bangor City - and that's the order in which they currently stand.
For Gap Connah's Quay and Newtown, the task is clear: win on Saturday and they will finish 'above the line' and qualify for the top six 'Championship Conference'. In fact, depending on results elsewhere, a draw might be enough for one or both of these clubs.
But Gap Connah's Quay face the stiffest test of all this week, facing likely champions The New Saints, and may have to rely on other results if they are to get the desired outcome this week. TNS as ever are odds-on to win at the Deeside Stadium, but just a point will almost certainly do for the Nomads and the league sponsors are offering 17/4 on the draw here.
Newtown's visit to Park Avenue, Aberystwyth on Saturday, looks less daunting - Aber's recent home form is very poor - but the Robins themselves are on a bad run, with just one win in seven games, and just a two-goal victory for the Seasiders will be enough for the sides to swap places; the margins are indeed very tight.
Carmarthen Town, entertaining lowly Rhyl on Saturday, have every reason to hope they can profit from slip-ups by those above them and jump into the top six: they sit only two points behind Newtown and Gap Connah's Quay, and should both lose, the Old Gold will occupy fifth place in the table on Saturday evening. Carmarthen are expected to do what they need to, whether it proves tro be enough or not. But the odds on a home win here aren't particularly attractive.
Bangor City, like Aberystwyth Town, need everything to fall right for them if they are to leap from ninth into the top six. They have to beat bottom club Haverfordwest County for a start, and hope Gap Connah's Quay, Newtown and Carmarthen Town all lose. In fact, even that combination of results might not suffice - they may need the margins of victory and defeat to be large enough to give them a superior goal difference. But it's not inconceivable that Gap will concede a few goals to TNS, nor that Bangor can score a few against their west Wales visitors.
The two remaining games, also taking place on Saturday evening, will not have such an immediate and significant impact as the four that will decide who finishes above and below the line in the 'split' table, but the points on offer remain important for the four clubs involved in the longer term quest for honours, European places and survival this season:
Indeed, in any other week, the Bala Town v MBi Llandudno clash at Maes Tegid would have taken centre stage, involving as it does the clubs disputing second place in the table. A win for Alan Morgan's Llandudno side would see them leap-frog the Lakesiders into second place, but Bala held them 0-0 at Maesdu Park earlier in the season and are hard to beat on their own ground, as Haverfordwest found out last weekend. Llandudno, however, actually have a slightly better record away from their 3G pitch, with six wins from ten, and recently proved they can grind out results on heavy grass surfaces with a battling win at Carmarthen in December. Although Bala start favourites here, the odds on an honourable draw look more enticing.
The sixth match on Saturday won't actually see anybody move up or down in the table, but both Port Talbot Town and Airbus UK Broughton need the points on offer for very different reasons. Struggling Port Talbot need to put as much daylight as they can between themselves and the bottom two, but with only two wins from ten games at the GenQuip Stadium, and memories of a 2-0 defeat at the Airfield in the reverse fixture earlier in the season, confidence can't be high in the Steelmen's camp. However, they did end a miserable six-game winless run at Aberystwyth on Sunday and will hope to take the momentum into Saturday's game.
The Wingmakers need the three points to stay in touch with the top three, for Bala and Llandudno currently lead them by four and three points respectively. With just ten second phase games to come after this week, and no easy games in the top six, Airbus need three points from this fixture to boost their hopes of another European campaign in the Europa League this summer.
Of course, between now and the weekend games, everyone will be looking for their 'Bet of the Day'. It could be anywhere, but if forced to choose one in Wales, I might just go for the attractive odds on Gap Connahs Quay to get the point they need against TNS, and seal their place in the top six for the rest of the season.
With six intriguing games, riddled with question marks over current form, and with so many possible outcomes on Saturday night, the Welsh Premier League officials couldn't really have wished for a better finale to phase 1, could they ?
Last Updated on Wednesday, 13 January 2016 10:23
I've lost count of the number of times that Swansea City have been admired from afar by fans of other clubs, both in the Championship and within the Premier League. Okay, so the Manchester Uniteds and Arsenals of this world are unlikely to want to swap fortunes with the side from Glamorgan, but I know supporters of many a mismanaged club (the likes of Leeds United, Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool all immediately spring to mind) who positively drool over the Swansea blueprint.
Developing from within, using the transfer market shrewdly rather than flippantly, and trusting in youth are all staples of the Swans' manifesto – but of course this approach has its failings. There's a reason why Van Gaal and Wenger don't follow the same pattern: it promotes steady and sustainable growth, but requires patience and trust when things are going wrong. And whilst things will go wrong eventually, they will also get better.
Manchester United aren't afforded the same scope for forgiveness in terms of growing pains as a mid-table side would be – their fans demand instant success and they are so used to having it that managers can go out and drop £36m on unproven strikers. Garry Monk has never been afforded such luxuries, and when he finds himself punching above his weight, that marker is often used as the new measure of what is acceptable, rather than being treated as a pleasant anomaly.
As such, the Swansea boss apparently finds his job in jeopardy – he is currently the 1/4 favourite to be the next Premier League manager to lose his job with a range of leading bookmakers – as a result of garnering thirteen points from their opening twelve games. But this probably isn't too far away from where they should be given their stadium size, financial situation and inability to lure top-drawer players, so I would back the famously patient Huw Jenkins to resist swinging his chopper just yet.
Monk has proved himself to be both an excellent tactician and man-manager, and as such I'm backing him to begin his side's recovery against Eddie Howe's Bournemouth on Saturday. Such is the hysteria around the Liberty Stadium at present, it's perhaps worth mentioning that victory could move Swansea to within just a single point of Liverpool. Crisis, what crisis?
You can take advantage of bonuses and compare the odds from across a host of leading online bookmakers at bookies.com, but my pick would be to forget about Monk losing his job, and plump for a Swans 2-1 win at 17/2. But if you're not convinced their still-shaky defence can limit the Cherries to just the one goal, why not back Monk's leading striker, Bafetimbi Gomis, to open the scoring at a generous 5/1?
No one thought Rodgers could be replaced when he left in 2011, and then no one thought there was a suitable replacement for Michael Laudrup after he guided the club to their first major piece of silverware in 2013. Now in 2015 and on the back of last season's highest ever Premier League finish, chairman Huw Jenkins must believe that he did the right thing by by bringing through Garry Monk – after all, you don't become a bad manager overnight.
Last Updated on Thursday, 19 November 2015 18:45
With the Dafabet Welsh Premier League now into the second half of its first phase fixture list, the league table has to be taken seriously – the unexpected can't be explained by early season form, slow starters, honeymoon periods etc.
In many respects, the table after thirteen rounds of matches has a fairly familiar look to it, with the WPL's four European representatives from last July all positioned in the top five – but they're currently split by the surprise package of the autumn periods, MBi Llandudno, lying third and fresh from an impressive 1-4 win at Aberystwyth Town last weekend.
Current league favourites The New Saints travel north to face Llandudno next weekend in what promises to be a fascinating test of how far the Huws Gray Alliance champions have come since making their debut in the Welsh Premier back in August. Eyebrows were raised when they grabbed a 1-1 draw against the champions at Park Hall at the end of August, but that result came during a period when the Saints seemed to be a little below their formidable best.
It's maybe not surprising that TNS went through such a spell early in the campaign; their whole yearly cycle is focused on reaching a peak in July, when they carry Welsh hopes in the UEFA Champions League qualifying rounds, and their fortunes in that crucial campaign largely represent the defining line between on the one hand success and progress, and on the other failure or at least stagnation.
Of course, Craig Harrison's men (pictured above) emerged with huge credit from their brief Champions League campaign, easing through the first round before a desperately unlucky extra time exit in the second round. After the highs and lows of that experience, the return to the bread-and-butter of Welsh Premier life, and the challenge of defending the championship in order to have another shot at the Europe's biggest club competition, it's understandable that it took the Saints a month or two to completely find their rhythm and impose themselves on the league. October was a turning point for them: from sharing the leadership with several others, they emerged from the month with a healthy lead, even putting five points between themselves and Bala Town.
Still unbeaten despite the points dropped early in the season, TNS travel to Maesdu Park on Saturday for what could prove to be one of their toughest tests of the season. Although Llandudno's six-match unbeaten run came to a surprising end in their last home fixture, when Carmarthen Town snatched a 1-2 victory, they bounced back in fine fashion last Friday, racing into a three goal lead by half-time at Park Avenue and going on to win 4-1. The first league visit of champions TNS to Maesdu Park should draw a big crowd and if the visitors can come away with a win, their title odds could shorten even further.
Last Updated on Monday, 02 November 2015 20:39