NICOSIA (Reuters) - Wales and Cyprus have always finished among the also-rans in the qualifiers for the European Championship but when they meet in Nicosia on Thursday both will be hoping to take another step towards ending their long wait for a place in a major finals.
A wave of excitement has gripped Wales who top Group B with an unbeaten record of four wins and two draws, with Gareth Bale and his team mates knowing that if they beat Cyprus and then Israel on Sunday they will reach their first major finals since the 1958 World Cup.
Cyprus have more to do, having won three and lost three of their six matches, but if they were to beat Wales and then upset Belgium on Sunday they too would boost their chances enormously.
Wales have 14 points, followed by Belgium (11), Israel (9), Cyprus (9) and Bosnia (8) with the top two qualifying for the finals in France automatically along with the third best-placed side in the qualifiers.
The eight remaining third placed teams contest the play-offs.
Wales have slipped up badly in the past with places in various finals seemingly within their grasp, but Chris Coleman’s side overcame a huge psychological barrier when they beat Belgium 1-0 in Cardiff in June.
They were then included among the top seeds for the qualifying round draw for the 2018 World Cup finals in St Petersburg in July, and there is real optimism that their near 60-year wait for a return to a major finals is finally coming to an end.
Former international Craig Bellamy told BBC Wales this week he is “100 per cent certain” Wales will qualify for the finals.
“We have a squad with individually talented players, some of the best players we have ever seen in a Welsh shirt,” he said.
“If we could just qualify, football will take off and it won’t look back. We could be a football nation for the next 20 or 30 years -- a really strong football nation -- which is something we all want.”
Bale, the world’s most expensive footballer, has recovered from a toe injury, while defenders James Collins and Ben Davies, who both missed the win over Belgium through injury, are back in the squad.
Cyprus’ coach Pambos Christodoulou does not have any major selection headaches although he will be without experienced 30-year-old French-born midfielder Vincent Laban, serving a one-game suspension.
The Cypriots will be hoping to claim another scalp after an impressive 2-1 win in Bosnia in the opening fixture.
Having completed the double over minnows Andorra the last time out, Cyprus go into the two matches in good spirits.
The players are trying not to get too carried away with their lofty position in the group and have called on the sometimes flaky supporters to show up in numbers to help spur the national team to victory.
“We want the supporters by our side, something we have wanted since the qualifiers began,” Nektarios Alexandrou of APOEL Nicosia said.
“But regardless of the attendance, we must stay focused.”
Writing by Mike Collett in London, editing by Sudipto Ganguly