Wales v Belgium: Aaron Ramsey reiterates the importance of a positive start
AARON Ramsey has revealed he was knocked out of the squad table tennis competition in the first round — every Wales captain knows that feeling.
Howls of triumph and despair bled into the press conference room yesterday where Ramsey and Chris Coleman were addressing the media ahead of this evening's match against Belgium.
The rest of the squad were next door huddled around the ping-pong table, shrieking their encouragement as Adam Matthews challenged Steve Morison to a game.
There is always excitement at the start of a World Cup qualifying campaign.
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But for Wales it tends to quickly subside as, just like Ramsey, they fail to progress.
There is a degree of uncertainty hanging over Wales as they begin their quest to reach Brazil in two years' time.
The optimism sweeping the nation before the tragic loss of Gary Speed has been quelled by a couple of uninspiring results.
Wales lost to Mexico last May before a lucklustre showing ended with a 1-0 defeat to Bosnia-Herzegovina at Parc y Scarlets last month.
"We were disappointed with what we produced against Bosnia, we've got to learn from that and get a better result this time," said Coleman.
"It was pre-season, some of the lads had been at the Olympics and we were playing against a very good Bosnian side.
"But I was conscious not to make excuses for the performance. We didn't keep the ball enough.
"If we're naive or show a soft underbelly to Belgium we will get punished."
It is hard to deny that momentum has been lost since Coleman replaced Speed. Not that that is the former Fulham boss's fault.
Speed's tragic death hit the Football Association of Wales hard. His passing stunned a nation and it took time for officials, players and supporters to regain their focus.
But, as Coleman points out, there is a tendency to romanticise the team's position before he took the reins.
Wales had won three games on the trot and were starting to play the kind of fluent football Speed had wanted to implement.
But they had by no means proved they were able to reproduce that form consistently against top teams and in the thick of qualification battle.
"It's been a difficult time for everyone, but we can't keep looking over our shoulder at the past," said Coleman.
"You can win friendlies and the last few games in a dead group, but we haven't qualified and that's what we've got to do.
"We have to look forward. I don't mean that in a cold way. Everyone knows about my relationship with Gary, but we have to push on. That's what Speedy would have wanted."
With the events of the last ten months also leaving fans flat, ticket sales have been disappointing for tonight's match at the Cardiff City Stadium.
Wales then face Serbia in Novi Sad on Tuesday, in a group that also contains Macedonia, Croatia and Scotland, and Ramsey has stressed the importance of a positive start.
It would inject impetus into the campaign, boosting fans and players alike.
"We have two games in a short space of time and the worst thing we can do is drop points and be playing catch-up," said Ramsey
"We want to get ourselves into the best possible position early on. If we can get a result against Belgium it will help build confidence as a team."
That will be easier said than done.
Much has been made of an impressive Belgium line-up likely to feature a clutch of star names from the Premier League.
Eden Hazard has exploded onto the domestic scene this season after completing a £32 million move to Chelsea, while Everton's Marouane Fellaini has also been in fine form. "You can't underestimate the talent and quality they've got in their team," said the Arsenal midfielder.
"We're aware of that and we need to stop their players from performing on the night.
"We also need to concentrate on our game as well."
Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany and Arsenal defender Thomas Vermaelen are other familiar faces in the visitors' ranks, along with Spurs pair Jan Vertonghen and Moussa Dembele.
"It's not always about the best players in football, it's about the best on the day," said Coleman.
"If there's a weak link, a chink in your armour, a good team can exploit that.
"I could talk all day about how good Belgium are, but I want to talk about my team."
Typically, Wales are missing a number of players for this match.
Neil Taylor and Craig Bellamy are the two biggest losses.
Taylor is out for the season after suffering a serious ankle injury for Swansea City last weekend, while Bellamy continues to struggle with long-term knee problems.
Andrew Crofts, Joe Ledley, David Vaughan and Joel Lynch are others missing, while Boaz Myhill will continue in goal in place of Wayne Hennessey who is recovering from rupturing his cruciate ligament.
Andy King is also a doubt having only resumed training yesterday following a sickness bug.
But Wales do have their key trio of Ramsey, Joe Allen and Gareth Bale fit. Those are stellar names and Ramsey believes that, in Bale, Wales have the person with most star quality.
"I wouldn't swap him for any of the Belgian names," added the 21-year-old.
"For a couple of years he's been creating and scoring goals.
"Whenever he gets in behind players he's a threat, he's got the quality to whip in a ball and to shoot from distance to cause a problem for a goalkeeper. He's shown on the training pitch that he's as good as he's ever been."
Wales may face a Belgium side glittering with high-profile players.
But as Ramsey proved with the table-tennis bat, the big names don't always make it through.