45 minutes was all Dan James needed to prove to Rob Page that he should be starting in the World Cup play-off final after Wales lost 2-1 in Poland. The Leeds United man produced a first half full of energetic running that showed that he adds a completely different dimension to this Welsh team. They simply cannot afford to leave him out against Ukraine or Scotland.
This Nations League clash was understandably a mere warm-up for the big one on Sunday with a place at the Qatar World Cup at stake. But it didn’t mean the trip was a pointless one for Page’s men as fringe players attempted to get their name in contention for Wales’ date with destiny.
If they win this weekend, it will be their first World Cup appearance in 64 years and Page will now know how important James is to him. In that first half, he caused Poland all sorts of issues, breaking from midfield on multiple occasions to create chances.
There’s nothing defenders are more frightened of than pace. They can battle with physical forwards, they can crunch skilful strikers, but when a forward is just quicker than them, they have absolutely no answer. Poland’s midfield was packed full of experience but had little pace, and James took full advantage.
He’s so fearless on the ball with his running that he can scythe through any defence, and although his finishing still leaves something to be desired on several occasions tonight, he picked out the right pass instead of going for goal. Poland, like Scotland and Ukraine, rely on their energy and physicality to shut out opponents, and so James is likely to be set free again this weekend.
He was only given 45 minutes by his manager, perhaps a nod to the fact that he will indeed be starting in Cardiff on Sunday. If that judgement is anything to go by, then Kieffer Moore and Danny Ward are also in contention having been withdrawn at the break.
A front three of Gareth Bale (rested tonight), Moore and James seems a likely option for Page, and that will cause their opponents great difficulty in the Welsh capital. Bale has the finishing ability and pace, Moore is such an aerial threat and James has the relentless running and speed you need to break down a stubborn defence. But the manager has options.
Ipswich Town wide man Wes Burns impressed with his display while goalscorer Williams showed his prowess from midfield with a wonderful strike. His dipping effort from the edge of the box early in the second half earnt Wales an unlikely breakthrough given this was far from their first XI, before Poland levelled through Jakub Kaminski, who was delighted having scored his first goal for his country. Karol Swiderski scored a late winner for Poland but the result was practically irrelevant for Wales. Getting through this game unscathed was the most important thing.
Rabbi Matondo showed skill from the bench while Sorba Thomas, after his Wembley heartbreak, made a late appearance. The man who booked a place in the Premier League that day, Brennan Johnson, didn’t feature in Poland but could play a critical role on Sunday.
All roads lead to Qatar. The lack of injuries here will please Page the most and he will be desperate to get back to Wales and prepare for Sunday’s seismic encounter. By the time the plane lands, they will know their play-off opponents, but whether it is Ukraine or Scotland - James has to start.