Jason Koumas missed a penalty on Saturday and for all John Toshack knows, he may do the same with the plane to Russia this afternoon. Said the Wales manager: "When we get to the boarding gate, they'll announce, 'Gate No 26, flight boarding for Moscow' and I'll have a look around. We'll know then whether Jason's coming or not."
As it is, Toshack will probably be alerted to the status of his key man before "final call" as Koumas has been carrying an ankle injury and may be forced to pull out of the second World Cup qualifier anyway. But if he does head back to Wigan instead, and the prognosis does not seem good – "I can't have another three injections in my ankle again like I did for this game," he said – then there will be but a mere collective raising of the eyebrows in the homeland.
Koumas has a fear of flying and before March's friendly in Luxembourg he had gone almost three years without playing away for Wales. When this stat is put alongside an attitude that, until very recently, had been deemed as questionable and with a talent that has suffered a similar time-span in remaining unfulfilled, it is easy to see why the adjective often ascribed to the midfielder is "frustrating". It was being rolled out again in the capital on Saturday.
Toshack pointed out that "against teams like this Jason has often won us the match on his own" and for certain periods of the first-half it did seem likely that the midfielder, who had scored nine in his previous 12 internationals would be the game-winner (although this was never going to be a one-man show, as Gareth Bale was simply scintillating from the off). Indeed, when Koumas curled a 30-yarder into the top right-hand corner it appeared the game was to be won early.
But then Kamran Arhayev, the inspired Azeri debutant, somehow deflected it away and Koumas's afternoon also took a different direction. He received a yellow card in the 64th minute, saw a weak penalty and then the rebound saved two minutes later and proceeded to run himself into his shell. It was left to the substitute Sam Vokes to prod home the late goal that cast relief across the nation. "I'll be buying Sam a couple of pints," said a red-faced Koumas. At 18, Vokes is just about old enough.
Koumas's penalty gaffe could be excused – particularly as Arhayev was far enough off his line for the former captain Gary Speed to comment, "he could have polished Jason's boots as he hit it" – but his caution was inexcusable. After giving away a free-kick, he petulantly kicked the ball into one of the empty stands and now is one yellow away from a suspension.
"Perhaps he thought he'd already been booked in a friendly and would have to miss Moscow," quipped Toshack. He laughed as he said it, but then thought a little more. "Actually, that's not as daft as it sounds." With Koumas you never know, despite what Toshack claims has been a positive mental makeover. "Basically, I like him and understand him," Toshack said. "He is always our best bet for a goal, but with things like that booking maybe the penny will never drop for him. Joking aside, we are not waiting and wondering now if he will turn up."
His absence would be felt against the Euro 2008 semi-finalists. Toshack might be tempted to employ Bale in midfield as it is difficult to envisage the Tottenham full-back being allowed space for the mazy runs which characterised his best performance to date for Wales. Toshack might not have been sure about Bale replacing a hairclip after one challenge, but nobody was left in any doubt about his potential. Bale has it all but, unlike Koumas, does not have that destructive tendency. The perfect professional to have beside you in the departure lounge.
Wales (4-4-1-1): Hennessey (Wolves); Gunter (Tottenham), A Williams (Swansea), Morgan (Peterborough), Bale (Tottenham); S Davies (Fulham), Edwards (Wolves), Fletcher (Crystal Palace), Ledley (Cardiff City); Koumas (Wigan); Earnshaw (Nottingham Forest). Substitutes: C Evans (Manchester City) for Earnshaw, 62; Vokes (Wolves) for Edwards, 73; Robinson (Toronto) for Koumas, 88
Azerbaijan (4-1-4-1): Arhayev; Melikov, Sadygov, Yunis Oglu, Nodar Mammadov; Bahshiev; Huseynov, Samir Abbasov, Ramim, Subashic, Elvin Mammadov; Subashic. Substitutes: Nabiyev for Huseynov, 45; Nduka for Mammadov, 76.
Referee: A Stavrev (Macedonia).
Booked: Azerbaijan Bahshiev, Sadygov, Samir Abbasov, Arhayev; Wales Bale, Koumas.
Sent off: Ramim (68).
Man of the match: Bale.