Gareth Bale's absence the cruellest cut for Wales and Gary Speed

For a brief moment yesterday it looked like Wales had solved the mother of all problems and discovered the ideal replacement for Gareth Bale.

Gareth Bale's absence the cruellest cut for Wales and Gary Speed At 12.45pm, a black Range Rover pulled up outside the front of the Vale of Glamorgan Hotel, where the Wales team are staying, and out stepped Ryan Giggs. How Gary Speed, who greeted Giggs in the foyer, must have wished that his former international team-mate had turned up with a pair of boots under his arm.

Instead Giggs was delivering on a promise he made to Speed several weeks ago, when he agreed to drop in on the Welsh squad and spend a few hours with the players with a view to boosting morale ahead of the England match. It was a nice touch and one needed more than ever after a 24 hours that has dampened the mood in a camp that had been bristling with optimism before the news that every Welshman dreaded.

Of all the players to be ruled out through injury, Bale's name would have been the last one Wales supporters wanted to hear. Speed put on a brave face and said all the right things at his press conference as he sought to play down the idea that one player should make such a dramatic difference but everyone knew the reality. Life without Bale has completely changed the complexion of the game, cruelly robbing Wales of the player that England feared most.

Craig Bellamy has long been a talisman for Wales and Aaron Ramsey, the newly-appointed captain, is a prodigious talent. But Bale, with his searing pace and ability to create and score goals out of nothing, was the potential game-changer. "He's their biggest threat, that's no secret," said his Tottenham Hotspur team-mate Peter Crouch, hours before Bale was forced to pull out with a hamstring strain. "Sometimes, with his sheer energy, he can be unplayable."

England would find it impossible to replace a player of Bale's ability, never mind a country with Wales's resources. Of Speed's original 25-man squad, 15 of the players are turning out for Championship clubs. Two of those, Simon Church and Hal Robson-Kanu, who both play for Reading, are most likely to deputise for Bale against England. Without being unkind to either player, the name on the back of their shirt will help their opponents to recognise them.

Speed, who before Bale was ruled out had been expected to set Wales up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, could have been forgiven for tearing up his plans, but he refuses to accept that one player should make or break a system. "There will be no change in terms of structure," he said. "Obviously [Gareth] is a special player but we are planning for the next three and a half years and to change that all today would be silly over one player."

Yet England must be tempted to alter their approach to the fixture. The anticipated presence of Bale wide on the left had prompted suggestions that James Milner might be deployed on the right of midfield, where he would be expected to track back and work with the full-back Glen Johnson to double up on the Spurs player. Instead England can play with greater freedom and take comfort from the knowledge that Wales no longer have a player capable of turning defence into attack in the blink of an eye.

Neither Church nor Robson-Kanu would dare to claim to be that player. Both started in attacking wide positions against the Republic of Ireland last month, in Speed's first game in charge, although their inclusion had more to do with the nine withdrawals that preceded the match than their form at club level. Indeed, in another indication of the awkward dilemma that Speed has been left with, Church and Robson-Kanu have spent the majority of the season on the substitutes' bench at Reading.

Whatever Speed decides to do with his team selection, the Wales manager has to convince his players that their hopes of causing an upset at the Millennium Stadium did not disappear from view the moment that Bale dropped out of the side. One of the best ways to do that might be to pin up nine words from Crouch in the home dressing room prior to kick off. "If we can stop Bale, we can stop Wales," the England forward had said.

Powered by article was written by Stuart James, for The Guardian on Thursday 24th March 2011 22.04 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

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