Wales face tough first hurdle in Croatia as experience-drain reshapes squad

Rob Page’s men set to start qualification campaign this weekend amid an injury crisis

WALES are preparing to kickstart their Euro 2024 qualifying campaign against Croatia this Saturday without some key figures.

Wales are seeking to bounce back after a disappointing World Cup campaign which saw them finish dead bottom of their group, with their sole point coming from a 1-1 draw against the USA.

Page’s men take on the seventh best-ranked team in the world in Split with the task made even more difficult thanks to withdrawals from two senior members of squad which has also lost the experience of a quartet of retirees; former skipper Gareth Bale, Joe Allen, Chris Gunter and Johnny Williams.

Page announced his 24-man-squad on March 14 but has since been forced to tinker after key players Ben Davies and Wayne Hennessey suffered knocks.

In their place Page has called up former Newport County and current Northampton town  goalkeeper Tom King and Stoke City fullback Morgan Fox, alongside Swansea and Cardiff forwards Liam Cullen and Mark Harris.

Wales squad announcement before Wayne Hennessy and Ben Davies withdrew.

Nottingham Forest winger Brenan Johnson is also a doubt for Saturday’s game due to a groin injury. The 21-year-old has been widely tipped to take over the mantle from Bale, who announced his retirement from football back in January.

The forward, who Page described a “top player”, has seven goals and two assist in 27 games for his club this season.

“He’s arguably one of the best counter-attacking centre-forwards in the Premier League at this moment,” said Page.

“We know he is capable of scoring goals, his pace is an unbelievable asset and threat, so we will continue to develop him and take that pressure off him. He just has to enjoy his football.

“He is showing great potential at this moment, but we can’t compare him to Gareth. They are different types of players.”

The upcoming qualification campaign will be the first in 13 years to not feature Bale, alongside several other members of the ‘old guard’, signalling the end of an era in Welsh football.

“It’s still the same journey we are on, it’s just that some of the players have retired,” said Page.

“We want success. The biggest thing for us now is we don’t just hope with the question, ‘Can we qualify?

“We believe we can. The biggest thing has to be the mindset in the changing room.”

Croatia go into the game missing only Dinamo Zagreb forward Bruno Petkovic.

Zlatko Dalic’s men will be under huge pressure to get their qualifying campaign off to a good start in front of a home crowd expecting to see their colours represented at the upcoming Euros in 2024. Following an impressive World Cup campaign which saw the Vatreni reach the semi-finals, losing out to eventual winners Argentina.

Dalic described the upcoming qualifiers as a “a big challenge.”

He said: “We are the favourites in the group, but we have to be careful so that no mishaps happen. The European Championship in Germany is a big competition for us.”