Euro 2020: Wales have qualification hope after positive international break

Wales players celebrate Dan James' goal against Belarus
Dan James is congratulated after scoring against Belarus, his fourth goal in six games for club and country this season

There have been bumps on the road to Euro 2020 and for a while last Friday night it seemed Wales' qualifying campaign was a write-off.

Yet Gareth Bale's late goal against Azerbaijan means Ryan Giggs' team remain in the race to qualify from Group E.

And results elsewhere in the group in the last few days mean Wales have made up some ground on the teams in front of them.

Wales have plenty of work to do to make the top two, but Ryan Giggs was entitled to a smile following Monday's friendly victory over Belarus.

After back-to-back defeats when they were last together back in June, Wales have had a positive international break.

A tough group to call

World Cup runners-up Croatia began Group E as firm favourites to progress but, while they lead the way at present, Luka Modric and Co are in a four-way scrap for the two qualification places.

Their surprise draw in Azerbaijan on Monday looks like good news for Slovakia, Hungary and Wales, who are currently four points behind Croatia in fourth.

Only Azerbaijan are out of the running to qualify despite taking a point against Croatia, who had romped to a 4-0 win in Slovakia last Friday. The Slovakians responded to that loss by winning 2-1 in Hungary.

All in all, they were "not the worst results" in Giggs' eyes.

The key now, of course, is for Wales to do their job.

Joe Allen
Joe Allen captained Wales against Belarus in the absence of Gareth Bale, who started on the bench, and Ashley Williams

There will be little margin for error when they go in search of a first away success in the group in Slovakia next month before hosting Croatia.

"We have got ground to make up after the two disappointing results in the summer but we are capable of doing it," said Wales midfielder Joe Allen.

"Our focus is to try to take care of our own business. We have it all to play for and we will throw absolutely everything at the games coming up."

Should Giggs' team remain in contention after Slovakia and Croatia, this campaign will come down to meetings in Azerbaijan and at home to Hungary in November.

"It's a pretty even group now - it's all opened up," said Tottenham defender Ben Davies.

"People may say the (Azerbaijan) performance wasn't up to it but we got three points and that's the most important thing.

"We have got to do what we had to do anyway, which is win all the remaining games."

Momentum gained

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Ryan Giggs happy with other results from Wales' Group E rivals

Wales last won away from home in major championship qualifying when Tom Lawrence's goal saw off Georgia in October 2017.

Can they repeat the trick against Slovakia, who they beat 1-0 in their opening Euro 2020 game in March?

Wales will travel to Trnava with confidence having scrapped to victory over Azerbaijan and then seen off Belarus thanks to a more fluent performance.

"These have been important games to build a little bit of momentum going into the two tough games next month," added Allen.

"We would have loved to get a couple more goals but it's two games, two wins."

To maintain momentum next month, Wales must avoid the sort of defensive errors which proved key in Croatia and Hungary in June and almost cost them dear against Azerbaijan.

At the other end of the pitch, meanwhile, Giggs' team need a more clinical edge.

"We set high standards," said right-back Connor Roberts.

"We know the players we have and how good they are and we do expect to play better, not just win.

"There was some criticism (after Azerbaijan) but we won at the end of the day and we move on. We are still in with a chance.

"We just have to block out what everyone on the outside is saying and concentrate on ourselves."

What happens next?

Ryan Giggs
The victories over Azerbaijan and Belarus mean Ryan Giggs has won seven of his 15 games as Wales manager

The increasingly influential Dan James scored the only goal against Belarus, just as he had done in the Slovakia triumph.

The winger has enjoyed a superb start to life at Manchester United and feels Wales are benefiting because a number of players are thriving at club level.

"Compared to the last camp, we have a lot of boys playing regular football and that's important," James said after the Belarus triumph.

Giggs agreed, pointing out that his life had been made easier because so many players had reported for international duty "fit and in the match rhythm".

Now the Wales boss is left hoping it will be a similar picture when his squad reconvene next month.

Giggs will have a keen eye on the progress of Aaron Ramsey, who is still to make his Juventus debut after hamstring and back problems and is yet to feature in Euro 2020 qualifying.

What a boost his presence would be in Slovakia.

David Brooks is another potentially key man who was absent this week because of injury, but he is also doubtful for next month's games after ankle surgery.

What about the play-offs?

While the top two in Group E is Wales' target, all will not be lost if they miss out.

Four places at Euro 2020 will be on offer in the play-offs next March.

As it stands Wales will land a play-off berth - and there is a good chance it will stay that way.

Play-off places are decided by performances in the 2018-19 Nations League, when Wales finished second in their League B group.

The four group winners in each league are guaranteed play-off places but, should any of those countries qualify for Euro 2020 automatically, their spot will go to the next highest-ranked team in their Nations League tier.

It is a complicated system, but it may well give Wales a second chance at qualification should they need it.