Enjoying their best form in 20 years, Wales returned from Azerbaijan five points clear at the top of Group 9 after last Wednesday’s 2-0 win in a qualifying match in Baku.
Left vying for second place by the three-match winning streak put together by Michael Hughes’s charges are Yugoslavia and Italy, both with four points. Finland (3) is the other team in the group.
Wales had traveled to Baku without several top players and having never won their first three qualifying games in any tournament.
However, before the night was over, headers by Gary Speed (9th) and John Hartson (67th) had set one Welsh record while equaling another for the longest unbeaten run in the team’s history.
Hughes’s side, with victories over Finland and Italy in the qualifiers, went eight matches without defeat for the first time since Mike England’s squad accomplished the feat in 1981. Wales had earlier gone on an eight-game unbeaten run in 1958 when they reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup.
Hughes praised his players for rising to the occasion given the circumstances.
“We had a lot of players missing, but those who came in were fantastic, and that’s because of the team spirit we have. I’m delighted for each and every one of them,” he said.
Of the two headed goals, he said: “We watched Azerbaijan against Finland and Italy and it was obvious they were going to have a problem with good quality balls played into the box.”
Latvia (7) took a three-point lead in Group 4 on the back of Carlo Valentini’s own goal in a 1-0 result over San Marino in Serravalle.
Valentini’s costly error occurred during a last minute melee, as San Marino appeared on the verge of ending a 28-game losing streak in European qualifiers.
Cyprus beat Malta 2-1 in Nicosia to climb into third place in Group 1, behind leaders France (9) and No. 2 side Israel.
German-born striker Rainer Raufmann (50th) and Yiannakis Okkas (74th) connected for the Cypriots before Michael Mifsud (90th) pulled one back in stoppage time.