Gareth Bale remains the key man to Wales’ European Championships hopes, according to John Hartson.
Former Celtic, Arsenal and Wales striker Hartson insists Wales are still heavily reliant on their ‘main man’ – despite his troubled recent few months in Spain.
The 29-year-old Real Madrid star was criticised by some after two lacklustre performances in Wales’ two Euro 2020 qualifying defeats against Croatia and Hungary in June.
Bale scored twice for his club in their 2-2 draw at Villarreal on Sunday, but was also sent off for two yellow cards.
But Hartson, who is in the Sgorio studio for S4C’s live coverage of Wales v Azerbaijan on Friday 6 September, believes that Bale is now in a ‘better place’, having secured his immediate future at Real Madrid after months of intense speculation.
“We’ve got the likes of Daniel James, Tom Lawrence, David Brooks and Harry Wilson, so we’ve got plenty of exciting young players coming through,” said the 51-cap international.
“Of course, Gareth Bale has sorted out his situation at Real Madrid as well, so against Azerbaijan, I’d expect Gareth to be back to his usual self.
“He was slightly off in the games in the summer, naturally, because he had a lot on his plate with his club future up in the air. I think that’ll all be behind him now, he’s in a much better place mentally now than he was over the summer.
“He didn’t know if he was moving away from Madrid or not. Zinedine Zidane did not seem to want him and that’s bound to affect any player’s confidence.
“You want to turn up and play for your country with everything in place and he was not in an ideal situation at the time. Now he seems a lot more focused and he’s back in the Real Madrid team, he can come and enjoy the international break and hopefully, hit top form.
“He’s been our main man for the last few years and he still is, as far as I’m concerned. We are still very heavily reliant on him and if he turns up, we generally win.”
Having began the campaign with a 1-0 home victory against Slovakia, the losses in Croatia and Hungary have put Wales on the back-foot in their race to qualify.
After this month’s double-header, which features the qualifier against Azerbaijan and a home friendly versus Belarus, next month will see Ryan Giggs’ men fly to Bratislava for the return match against Slovakia, before welcoming World Cup runners up Croatia to the Cardiff City Stadium three days later.
Hartson added: “We haven’t taken any points from the last two matches, so this match against Azerbaijan is a must-win game.
“If we lose, there will certainly be a lot more pressure on the team to get results against Slovakia and Croatia. To be honest, I’m not even allowing myself to think that we’re in danger of losing or drawing. Cardiff City Stadium, Friday night under the lights, I can’t see us slipping up.
“Three points against Azerbaijan can put us in the right frame of mind for the two tough games to follow against Slovakia and Croatia. Both games are massive, but I think the match against Slovakia could be the most important of the whole campaign, and that’s why it’s vital that we beat Azerbaijan at home and head to Bratislava full of confidence.
“If we don’t get the right result against Azerbaijan, I don’t think he (Ryan Giggs) will be under major pressure from the FAW. I think whatever happens in this campaign, Ryan will get more time as manager and he will probably be there for the next World Cup qualifying campaign.”
John Hartson is a part of S4C’s Sgorio team for Wales v Azerbaijan on Friday 6 September, and Wales v Belarus on Monday 9 September, with coverage of both games starting at 7.25pm. For team news and interviews, follow @sgorio on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.