Ben Woodburn hasn’t even turned 18 yet, and despite the high hopes for him at Liverpool, so far this season he hasn’t had a significant role to play for the first team. For Wales, though, he’s made a major impact, and now, without Gareth Bale, the expectation is that he will start tomorrow against Georgia.
It’s as close to must-win as a game gets for Wales, who currently find themselves out of the running amongst second place sides from nine groups vying for eight playoff places. Woodburn, then, is likely to start. And he will be asked to fill some pretty big shoes, but his teammates at certainly have faith in him.
"I've seen a lot of Ben in this campaign and he reminds me of what Gareth was like when he was younger," was midfielder David Edwards’ take when asked about the youngster’s likely staring role on Thursday evening in Tbilisi and the man he’s about to be tasked with replacing in the starting eleven.
“If you see what Gareth was like in the Euros, the bigger the stage, the more he thrives. There aren't many players who can do that when the whole world is watching. But from what I've seen, I'm pretty sure Ben is cut from the same cloth and he will relish the chance to show everyone he is the real deal."
After tonight’s match against Georgia, Wales will head home to take on the Republic of Ireland in their final qualifying game. Four points between the two matches would all but guarantee advancement, and even just one win could be enough. Ireland, though, will be a tough match for the Welsh.
The Irish are just a point back of Wales in Group D, sitting on 13, and will be dreaming of an unlikely pair of wins from their final two games that could propel them into the second round playoffs. Georgia, on the other hand, are well off the pace with five points from their eight games played so far.
A win against Georgia, then, has to be the target. Fail to do that, and Wales’ qualifying hopes will likely be all but mathematically dashed—or perhaps even mathematically, depending on how results elsewhere go. And it looks like already so much of their hope and expectation is falling to Ben Woodburn.
It’s a lot of pressure and praise for a player who hasn’t even turned 18. Hopefully, then, this all ends well, both for the Woodurn and for his national team, who have already kept their unlikely dream of World Cup qualification alive far longer than anybody expected.