REUTERS – Fit-again Gareth Bale will lead Wales into the cauldron of Bosnia’s Bilino Polje stadium in Zenica on Saturday as they aim to end a 57-year long wait to qualify for a major tournament with a match to spare.
The Welsh, who lead Group B with 18 points from eight games, need one point from their remaining two fixtures to reach Euro 2016, with their final qualifier against Andorra in Cardiff on Tuesday.
The 1958 World Cup was their only previous appearance on the big stage and Bale, who was named the Welsh player of the year for a record fifth time on Monday, made it no secret how excited they were with the prospect.
“We have been working hard for many years to be in this position,” he was quoted as saying by the BBC.
“We have all been playing with each other for six to eight years. The manager has come in and been amazing.”
Manager Chris Coleman had been sweating on Bale’s fitness in recent weeks but the 26-year old allayed fears he might be unavailable after coming on as a substitute in Real Madrid’s 1-1 draw at city rivals Atletico on Sunday.
“I have prepared well for the last couple of weeks,” said Bale. “The calf is okay. It was a nice 20 minutes to open it up and get the legs going ready for the next two games.”
But even at full strength with Bale firing on all cylinders, the match against a Bosnia side desperately needing a win to keep alive their own hopes of qualifying will be a stern test for unbeaten Wales.
The Bosnians, who are fourth in the group with 11 points behind second-placed Belgium (17) and third-placed Israel (13), are holding their breath as top scorer Edin Dzeko faces a race against time to shake off a knee injury.
The 26-year-old AS Roma striker twisted his ligament in his team’s 5-1 Serie A win over Carpi on Sept. 26 and although he was initially ruled out for up to six weeks, he has been included in Bosnia’s 25-man squad.
“Dzeko will train separately for two sessions and we expect him on the pitch on (Thursday) afternoon,” the Balkan nation’s coach Mehmed Bazdarevic said.
“We hope he will be ready for the match.”
The Bosnians will miss suspended central midfielder Muhamed Besic but unlike up front, where Vedad Ibisevic stands out as the only natural replacement for Dzeko, Bazdarevic has plenty to choose from in the engine room.
With Dzeko’s Roma team mate Miralem Pjanic set to pull the strings, the Bosnians can also count on Haris Medunjanin, Tino Sven Susic, Sejad Salihovic and the speedy Senad Lulic.
Dropping forward Izet Hajrovic came as a little bit of a surprise, though, given Bosnia’s limited options up front as Edin Visca and particularly 20-year-old Armin Hodzic lack experience at the highest level.
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)