As a depleted Wales side prepares to host Macedonia on Friday evening, David Bowers looks at the key battles that could determine whether or not the home side will be rock bottom of the Group A table when the dust settles next week...
By David Bowers
Last Updated: 10/10/13 10:55am
Aaron Ramsey vs Muhamed Demiri
Just a few months after being blasted by Arsenal fans online and on the terraces for his performances, Aaron Ramsey is playing the kind of football that he was tipped to produce when he was a teenager at Cardiff. The Welsh faithful will be hoping that he can continue his club form, which has seen him awarded as the Premier League Player of the Month for September, on the international stage.
Undoubtedly the star of the show in Gareth Bale's absence, Ramsey will be the key playmaker for Wales on Friday and Macedonia will be looking to defensive midfielder Muhamed Demiri as the man to nullify Ramsey's threat.
Swiss-born Demiri has only just returned from an injury that sidelined him for over two months, and his replacement Ostoja Stjepanovic was criticised for his performance during last month's home defeat to Scotland. Demiri joined Swiss side FC St Gallen in July and will be keen to prove a point to his new management, who will no doubt be impressed if he can keep the red-hot Ramsey at bay.
Goran Pandev vs James Collins
Macedonia's all-time top scorer and current captain Goran Pandev has been plying his trade in Italy since 2000, blossoming at Lazio with a healthy return of 48 goals in 159 games. Now playing for Napoli, Pandev is still recognised as one of the most feared strikers in Serie A and possesses the kind of quality that could potentially cause a lot of trouble for Wales.
Following a defensive crisis which would have seen a centre-back partnership of right-back Chris Gunter and Hibernian midfielder Owain Tudur Jones, last capped in 2011, Chris Coleman has been in lengthy discussions with West Ham defender James Collins.
Coleman had said last month that Collins had refused to play for Wales, a claim that the Hammers defender swiftly denied. Following Wednesday's announcement that Collins and Coleman have resolved their differences, it'll be interesting to see how Collins deals with the pressures of being the only recognised centre-back in the Welsh side and how he combats the threat of Pandev, who has scored 26 times for Macedonia.
Craig Bellamy vs Nikolce Noveski
After announcing he will retire after the Belgium game on Tuesday, Craig Bellamy will be keen to end his international career on a high note. Leaving Wales as the country's third most-capped player of all time, Bellamy believes the current crop of players have the potential to better the achievements of the 1958 World Cup side, the only Wales team to qualify for the tournament.
A typically hard-working and emotional performance is expected from Bellamy, with fellow veteran Nikolce Noveski aiming to spoil the leaving party. Centre-back Noveski, 34, has the unwanted record of scoring the most own goals in the Bundesliga but possesses a wealth of experience in dealing with Germany's top strikers as captain of 1. FSV Mainz 05 and is the only Macedonian to captain a Bundesliga side.
As Noveski nears the end of his international career, don't expect Bellamy to be given a great deal of sympathy as he too is aiming for a flourishing end to a respected international career.