Coleman leads Wales to Euros even after shock loss to Bosnia-Herzegovina
ZENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Three quick thoughts from Bosnia-Herzegovina's 2-0 win over Wales in European Championship qualifying Saturday.
1. Wales stumble home, but who cares?
It was not quite meant to happen like this. While Bilino Polje erupted to celebrate a result that unexpectedly puts Bosnia-Herzegovina in the driving seat for a playoff place, Wales' players stood dejectedly, hands on hips, unsure exactly what this untimely first defeat of their qualifying campaign meant.
The answer came quickly enough: In the far corner of the stadium, the bank of 600 travelling supporters erupted, and a few pennies finally dropped on the pitch. One red shirt began racing toward the fans, then two, then everyone. Cyprus' win in Israel ensured that this result, for Wales at least, was immaterial, and that this evening will go down as the country's biggest football night for 57 years.
Wales will play at Euro 2016.
Wales' jitters on a wet, wild evening in Zenica could be understood well enough. The simplest things can become difficult when the finish line of a seemingly impossible task is in view, and that was certainly how it felt when Bosnian substitute Milan Djuric looped in his team's winning goal from his side's first real chance of the game.
Wales' defence should never have let a harmless-looking Mensur Mujdza free kick skip off a sodden pitch and into the air for the Cesena striker to make his intervention, and they were not at their most alert when Vedad Ibisevic made sure of the result at the death, either. Bosnia-Herzegovina had not created a single clear opportunity prior to Djuric's goal; the best chances had come to Wales on the counter, and perhaps they had been almost too comfortable defensively before the towering replacement's introduction.
A goal or two for the visiting fans to celebrate would have topped things off, but it wasn't to be. Wales picked their moments to stretch their hosts, with Gareth Bale skipping clear down the left a few times in the first half but not quite finding a telling delivery. Aaron Ramsey weaved in from the right to squeeze the ball under Asmir Begovic just before half-time with Neil Taylor unable to convert the loose ball, having almost caught the Chelsea goalkeeper out with a long-range free kick before that. Bale should have hit the target after bursting into the area 10 minutes after half-time, and he also shot wide later on.
Questions may be asked in the coming months about Wales' attacking potency if Bale is not on top form -- would a specialist centre-forward have anticipated one or two of the Real Madrid man's deliveries more alertly than Hal Robson-Kanu? -- but they can be put to one side for now. Maybe this is just the way it was always going to be: After all those years of hurt, not even the wildest optimist could have expected to sail home without a choppy water or two.
2. Coleman has proved to be the perfect international manager
Saturday's result can easily be looked past; Chris Coleman richly deserves some homage paid to him. It is not stretching a point to say the manager had a reputation to rebuild when he took the Wales job in January 2012. His past club role in the UK had seen him fail to take Coventry forward, and a brief spell in Greece with Larissa was not sufficient to raise his stock.
Other managers have dropped off the radar for less. It was unfortunate, too, that Coleman was offered the Wales job after the tragic death of his good friend, the hugely popular Gary Speed.
Nobody is doubting Coleman now. Creating a cohesive team at international level is becoming a dying art, but the 45-year-old has shown himself to be an imaginative, flexible character who can alter his approach to vastly different challenges while getting the best out of a squad that -- while talented -- lacks some depth in key areas.
Coleman stuck with two of the tweaks that have proved resoundingly successful in recent matches in Zenica. Robson-Kanu, a winger when playing in the Championship with Reading, continued at the tip of what was in practice a fluid front trio completed by Ramsey and Bale, while a back three that saw Ashley Williams partnered with specialist full-backs Ben Davies and Chris Gunter provided a composed bedrock. These are manoeuvres that, on paper, should not come off, but they give Wales a useful mobility in key areas and make it easy to switch between proactive and reactive approaches according to the occasion.
There was not too much requirement for the former in Zenica. While this was not exactly a free hit for Wales -- momentum will be important going into Euro 2016 -- there was no need to go hell for leather and, with Bosnia-Herzegovina's need the more urgent, Coleman's team was content to allow the hosts long periods of ineffective possession and hit them on the break when possible.
Wales' mastery of the situation was perhaps the most impressive aspect of their performance until Djuric's goal, and the ends justified the means despite their defeat. Other teams might have rushed things, particularly with such a big monkey to get off their back and in a hostile environment, but Wales exuded control in Zenica even when denied possession. That kind of authority comes from the top, and Coleman's approach marks him out as one of the most interesting coaches to watch in France next summer.
3. Bosnia-Herzegovina put themselves in playoff-driving seat
It would have been easy to write obituaries for this Bosnian generation if things had gone wrong here. This is not the freewheeling, carefree side that Safet Susic so thrillingly piloted to the World Cup. A troubled Euro 2016 campaign looked in terminal danger when their talisman Edin Dzeko was ruled unfit on the night.
After an opening hour in which, for all their possession, the home team barely threatened, Dzeko's name was chanted by three of Bilino Polje's four corners. It was not a promising sign, then, when Djuric -- without an international goal to his name -- entered instead and the thought persisted that Bosnia-Herzegovina simply do not have the depth to challenge the best despite the joy of two years ago.
But Dzeko was not needed at all and, while a lapse in Welsh concentration certainly helped the hosts, few will be too unhappy at seeing them in pole position for a playoff spot. This remains a team capable of playing attractive football, backed by fans who create an atmosphere rivaled by few on the continent. It would be a shame if this small country slipped slowly down the football pecking order once more, and they now have a genuine chance of backing up their appearance in Brazil with a first European Championship campaign.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.