JOHN HARTSON believes there is only one winner if Ireland and Wales bring their A games to the Aviva Stadium tonight — the team with the red Ferrari.
Backing his nation he said: “Republic of Ireland — they had a buoyed Euros, you won one in four, we won four in six. We’re semi-finalists on merit.”
His succinct reminder that Wales were a team in the fast lane last summer is a reminder that Ireland face a tough challenge tonight.
Former Wales star Hartson stressed that his real confidence comes from Wales having two world-class players in Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey.
He added: “We’re a very good side, we’ve got the star players I feel. We’ve got the individuals.
“Arsenal turned £40million down for Aaron Ramsey two years ago from Barcelona. Gareth Bale has won two Champions Leagues in the last two years. When he plays, we predominantly win. When he plays well for Real Madrid, Real Madrid predominantly win.
“Gareth has done that, when he takes to the pitch, that superstar of Real Madrid, he is a Ferrari, he’s zero to 60 in four seconds, he takes it, it’s zoom he’s gone.
“He’s a world-class player, he’s worth £100m. We have him in our ranks. If he has a good performance, he is very very difficult to stop.
“And what happens when Bale plays for Wales, he gives the rest of the team a lift because they all know they have to raise their standards.
“It’s like if Roy Keane was taking to the pitch on Friday night, the rest of the players know they must raise their game. That’s why I say if both teams play really well, I just think that we have the edge. And that’s not being disrespectful.”
But he acknowledges that the smooth running engine of the Euros has been spluttering of late.
While Bale gets all the plaudits — he scored seven of Wales’ 11 goals in qualifying for Euro 2016 — the Ashley Williams’ marshalled defence was just as important conceding just four goals in that campaign.
But that reliability has deserted them in this campaign to date as they have led in all four games and twice in a 2-2 draw in Austria but have drawn three with a solitary win.
Hartson admitted: “We’re unbeaten as the Republic are but the Republic of Ireland have played three away and one at home. We’ve played three at home and one away. The difference in this campaign is we’ve not been able to see games out.
“Seeing a game out is an art in itself. Keeping a clean sheet, throwing everything at it, stopping crosses, stopping balls coming into the box. We did that in the qualification for the Euros.
“We’ve dropped lots of points, we led twice in Austria, we led against Georgia, pulled back to 1-1, we led against Serbia, pulled back in the last kick of the game.
“It’s disappointing but we have to keep our spirits up.”
But Hartson knows time is running out for Wales.
Four points behind the Boys in Green with six games left, Hartson knows Ireland will be within sight of the finish line with a win tonight.
The former Arsenal striker conceded: “I think it’s imperative that we don’t get beat. If it goes to seven points, the difference, it would be very difficult to come back. There is only five games to go so then the Republic of Ireland would have to lose two or three and we’d have to win two or three.
“If we’re seven points behind, we almost need a miracle to top the group.
“So are we under pressure? The manager doesn’t think so, Chris (Coleman) still thinks there is enough points to play for.
“I think we’re running out of games slightly. This is a big one.”
Hartson knows it is not simply a case of Wales turning up and Bale turning it on to get the victory as he expects Martin O’Neill to have his team ready for any challenge.
The big Welsh bruiser was a key signing for O’Neill at Celtic and, together the pair won two league titles, two Scottish Cups and reached the UEFA Cup final.
And Hartson respects what O’Neill has instilled in his Ireland team.
He added: “We’re going to face a very well-organised team, a team that is going to graft and work hard together — a team of players that will go to the very very last kick of the game. I think you saw that in the Euros, Robbie Brady scoring that late goal against Italy.
“A team that beat Bosnia — the only team to beat Wales in the qualifiers — when you played them in the play-offs. A team that beat Germany. You have a manager that has got a habit of winning big games.
“They tell me you haven’t played particularly well in these World Cup qualifiers, you’re top of the group, how’s that?
“Because the players have dug in. You’ve had that little bit of luck which you need.
“We expect a difficult game, we don’t expect anything less from the Republic of Ireland.
“You have an advantage because you are four points clear, you don’t have to push.
“A draw keeps us four points behind you. We have to try and be on the front foot.
“We have to be a bit more open and be a bit more positive. Wales probably need to score the first goal.
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