Wales can continue to dream of qualifying for a first World Cup since 1958 after late goals snatched a nail-biting 2-0 win over Moldova in Chisinau.
With Serbia winning 1-0 in Dublin, Wales only needed victory against a side ranked 159th in the world to leapfrog Republic of Ireland into second spot in Group D.
Three points looked as though they would agonisingly slip away until Ben Woodburn, the star of Saturday night’s 1-0 win over Austria, came off the bench to tee up Hal Robson-Kanu for an 80th-minute opener.
A stubborn Moldova gave up few clear-cut chances until that point and had looked set to spoil the party, sitting deep and somehow escaping a pair of goalmouth scrambles.
But Aaron Ramsey’s deflected stoppage-time effort finally put the result beyond doubt and sent Chris Coleman’s side a point ahead of Ireland.
Wales must now aim for victories against Georgia and Ireland in their final two games to maximise their chances of earning a play-off berth through a second-placed finish, although Serbia in top spot can still be caught should the group leaders slip up.
— Alex Terrell (@alxterrell) September 5, 2017
Coleman drafted Robson-Kanu into his starting XI in place of Sam Vokes and the West Brom forward almost repaid his coach’s faith immediately, heading Ramsey’s corner just past the upright.
Robson-Kanu went even closer in the 19th minute, somehow denied by a desperate block on the line after Ramsey’s point-blank follow-up from a Gareth Bale shot was smothered by goalkeeper Ilie Cebanu.
Moldova’s 4-0 defeat to Wales last September is their biggest losing margin of the campaign but they were proving to be far from pushovers on home turf, testing Wayne Hennessey on occasion as the deadlock ticked past half an hour.
Ben Davies attempted to end the scoreless start with an inventive volley but, despite taking 72 per cent of possession into half-time, Wales were unable to find a first-half breakthrough, with Ramsey slicing the final opening high and wide from a narrow angle.
— Wales (@FAWales) September 5, 2017
Already the scorer of four goals throughout qualification, Bale always seemed likeliest to end the wait for an opener and the winger’s long-range shot almost drew a costly spill from Cebanu after the restart.
Robson-Kanu also remained a threat, but the Euro 2016 star put a good opportunity the wrong side of the post in the 55th minute after shaking his marker on the edge of the area.
Coleman responded by injecting Woodburn on the hour as Wales raised their attacking intensity, with Ashley Williams heading straight at Cebanu from a corner.
Burnley striker Vokes was also introduced in search of a precious goal and came close to a quick impact, almost getting to Davies’ by-line cutback before rising to head a cross narrowly across the face of goal.
The tension continued to grow and Moldova somehow escaped another goalmouth scramble with just under 20 minutes to play, while Woodburn saw appeals for a penalty waved away when he went to ground down in the area.
The breakthrough eventually came with 10 minutes to play as Liverpool’s emerging 17-year-old star turned provider, picking out Robson-Kanu for the winner, to the delight of the travelling Wales fans.
And when Ramsey beat Cebanu with a deflected effort, they were ready to dream of a return to football’s biggest stage, although plenty of work remains for Coleman’s men to get through.
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