Aaron Ramsey has raised his game significantly at club level this season, but can his star qualities brush off on his Wales team-mates? Jon Holmes analyses the Arsenal midfielder's armoury.
By Jon Holmes - @jonboy79
Last Updated: 11/10/13 10:50am
Meaningless? Wales' slim-to-none chances of qualifying for World Cup 2014 may have been definitively ended by Macedonia in Skopje last month, but the return match against the Eastern Europeans on Friday night has more riding on it than you might think.
National pride is one obvious concern - the Welsh sit bottom of Group A, and look set for their first such wooden spoon since propping up Group 7 of Euro '96 qualifying (they had been in the second pot of seeds for that draw too).
Of greater importance, however, must be boosting the Dragons' national-team coefficient, even though the route to Euro 2016 in France has not yet been mapped out by UEFA. Meanwhile, manager Chris Coleman's future could hardly be further up in the air, and player withdrawals - 10 at the time of writing - are testing the former principality's pool of talent to the limit.
'The world's most expensive footballer' (a moniker that already seems to hang heavy around Gareth Bale's neck) is the most high-profile absentee, while captain Ashley Williams is also missing due to his ankle ligament problem.
Wales may have 23 places over their opponents in the most recent FIFA World Rankings, but the injury crisis is a leveller to say the least. Wales need a hero, a player full of confidence who can score goals and also lift those around him to new heights. Aaron Ramsey is the clear candidate.
The best make others better, and Ramsey has been a beneficiary of that at the Emirates following the arrival of Mesut Ozil. Now he must try to use the following skills to coax the best out of his team-mates.
"Aaron was always in good positions in the box," said Arsene Wenger recently, "but now, because he has improved his technique, he doesn't rush his decisions."
Keeping a cool head has brought Ramsey four Premier League goals so far this season, and another four in the Champions League (including the play-off triumph over Fenerbahce). His domestic tally comes from just 12 shots, so he's sticking away one in every three - a finishing rate that many out-and-out strikers would be envious of.
Wenger has remarked upon the 22-year-old's sure touch in and around the box; the intelligence to take the ball past an opposition player if necessary; and a swift decisiveness when the shot is suddenly on.
Having calibrated his wayward gunsight (famous names worldwide are no longer under threat from his scattergun 'curse'), Ramsey should be scoring more than just penalties for his country - but chances are usually even scarcer at international level.
One sign of encouragement for Wales had been Sam Vokes' prolific spell in the Championship for Burnley - he has five goals in his last four games, and eight overall this season. However, the striker has been ruled out of the Macedonia game, meaning Charlton's Simon Church may be the man tasked with sniffing out a goal.
Most crucially, Ramsey has three assists so far this season. One was fortunate (a mis-hit shot resulting in Olivier Giroud putting the Gunners ahead at Fulham), one was sublime (for Serge Gnabry's goal at Swansea) and one was relatively straightforward (a right-wing cross for Mesut Ozil's sweet side-foot against Napoli).
But in a pre-season friendly that may only find true importance come the end of the season, an exquisite angled pass for Theo Walcott's goal against Manchester City in Helsinki in August has probably been Ramsey's best individual gift since the summer break. Andy King, likely to win a midfield berth on Friday, and Craig Bellamy should watch that back on video; if they can't match the precision, they might be able to anticipate a similar slide-rule delivery.
When asked what impressed him most about Ramsey's recent form, Coleman replied: "Aaron is defending really well - his positional play is much better and he is linking the play in the last third."
The young man from Caerphilly is certainly picking his passes more carefully. His completion rate of 86.8% might not be quite as high as that of Mathieu Flamini (92.9%) and Ozil (88.2%), but he's attempting more passes than either of his fellow midfielders - in fact, only Michael Carrick and Yaya Toure are averaging more in the Premier League.
In addition, Ramsey's mean score was partly diminished by the manner in which he was used by Wenger in Sunday's 1-1 draw at West Brom. Returning to the right side rather than the central position he prefers, he came off just before the hour mark (nursing a slight knock to the knee too, it must be noted).
Depending on available personnel, Ramsey could be asked to play a more defensive midfield role against Macedonia, alongside David Vaughan. The Sunderland man has only made three league appearances this season, but he kept the ball well in the second half at Southampton - the only point gained by the Black Cats so far - suggesting they may form a resolute midfield base.
Along with his goalscoring ability, tackling has been Ramsey's main area of improvement in the early months of the campaign. He has averaged five tackles per game in the Premier League, and has matched his percentage of tackles won in the Champions League too. Collecting first-half bookings at Fulham and Marseille forced him to take a more disciplined approach in both those away games, but still Arsenal came away with the points.
Comparisons with two of the Gunners' greatest-ever defensive midfielders have followed, with Jamie Redknapp noting: "He's absolutely tremendous in his all-round game. I think about Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit and those big guns - and that's what he's doing now."
Also, any lingering shadows of tackling uncertainty caused by a certain incident at Stoke in February 2010 have been firmly banished. Wenger again: "Aaron was resistant to go into the fights for a long time, but now he's over it."
Mentally and physically, Ramsey has been winning plaudits. The player himself admits that he hasn't changed anything about his game; it's just that he finally has mind and body in perfect harmony for the first time since he suffered a broken leg, and the effects are obvious.
"It takes a long time to overcome that mentally," said Ramsey, "but now I'm over that and I feel like I'm confident again and things are happening naturally on the pitch. Confidence is such a big thing; I feel like that's definitely been the biggest change."
As for Ramsey's fitness levels, team-mate Jack Wilshere claims they are "not normal" and is in awe of his drive: "He's naturally so fit he can score at any time in the game. He's pushing on in the 94th minute trying to get another."
Demonstrating that determination in a Wales shirt has proved more difficult, but there were signs last month. Playing further forward in midfield in a 4-2-3-1 formation in Skopje, he won a penalty with a lovely turn that tricked Ivan Trickovski (who will be missing through injury for the rematch) and scored himself from the spot. Macedonia won 2-1, and Coleman's men also went down 3-0 at home to Serbia the following Tuesday, but Ramsey was the best Wales player on the pitch in both games.
This week, Ramsey is likely to be handed the added confidence boost of receiving the skipper's armband again, due to Ashley Williams' absence. Coleman took the captaincy off the young midfielder last October as he preferred a centre-back to assume the role. Ramsey looks set to be surrounded by inexperience - Joe Ledley, Jack Collison, Jonny Williams and Andrew Crofts are all missing through injury or suspension - but there is an obvious opportunity for someone to have a real go at Macedonia. Their right-back Daniel Georgievski had a shocker while playing for Steaua Bucharest against Chelsea in the Champions League last week. Pace and penetration on the left side of the Welsh attack is vital and with Ramsey prompting from midfield, there is the potential to unlock the opposition on Friday.
Watch Wales v Macedonia live on Sky Sports 3 HD from 7.15pm on Friday.