This game in Cardiff was the decider for these two nations – win and they could make it to the World Cup. A draw would have done it for Wales too had other results gone their way, but the likelihood was that the winner of this game would make it into the playoffs to play for a place in Russia next summer.
In the end it was Ireland who clinched the vital three points in Cardiff thanks to a James McClean winner. The visitors booked their place in the playoffs next month and gave themselves a great chance to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. It was a heart-breaking loss for Wales but they simply didn’t create enough
A cagey start to a crucial game
The importance of the occasion was clearly not lost on the players. The match started off as a cagey affair with nobody wanting to make a mistake, and it was Wales who dominated the early possession. Aaron Ramsey’s early shot fizzed over the crossbar and provided the first warning sign for Ireland. Tom Lawrence, who scored the winner against Georgia last week, started brightly while Ramsey and Allen began to run the show in midfield.
All the pressure was coming from the home side, but on Ireland’s first real venture forwards James McClean whipped in an inviting cross that was only just dealt with by Wales captain Ashley Williams. The half-chance seemed to spur the visitors on, and Hendrick squandered a good chance, scuffing his volley after a long throw from Christie. Wales began to retain possession again soon after this surge from Ireland, and the tempo was slowed once again.
A 45-minute stalemate in Cardiff
To their credit Ireland grew into the game as the first half went on and Shane Duffy’s dragged a shot wide of the far post on the half hour mark. Minutes later Wales suffered a big blow when David Meyler clattered into Joe Allen, leaving the Stoke man dazed. The midfielder couldn’t continue and was replaced by Jonny Williams, leaving Ramsey as the main creative threat for Wales.
Allen’s departure did little to help the flow of the game as the tempo remained slow whenever the home side were in possession. The absence of key players for both sides, most notably Gareth Bale and Shane Long, was telling as both teams lacked any real attacking threat. It was Ireland who pushed with more vigour in the closing minutes of the half, and Robbie Brady slammed a shot straight into the hands of Hennessey with the last kick of a tight first period.
McClean gives Ireland a vital lead
The atmosphere seemed to pick up at the start of the second half as both sides tried to put together some cohesive attacks. James Chester headed into the side netting from a Wales corner, fooling half the stadium into thinking that he had broken the deadlock. Just moments later Robson-Kanu came even closer but Randolph turned the Welshman’s headed effort brilliantly over the bar. The two quick chances lifted the crowd and the game began to open up slightly for the first time.
It was the visitors who capitalised on the change in tempo however after some great defensive work high up the pitch from Jeff Hendrick. The midfielder pickpocketed Ashley Williams and his subsequent cross was slammed home by James McClean, putting Ireland in pole position to clinch a World Cup playoff spot. The travelling fans were delirious and their team started to play with even more confidence and belief.
Ireland hold out for a stunning win
With results elsewhere meaning a win was required for either side to reach the playoffs it was up to Chris Coleman’s men to somehow find two goals in the last half an hour. Woodburn and Vokes were brought on to this end and it became a backs to the wall defensive effort for Ireland. The home side struggled to create any clear-cut chances however as Martin O’Neill’s team defended with discipline and broke up any rhythm that Wales tried to establish.
The last few minutes provided an all-out attacking effort from the home side, but Ireland held firm thanks to an incredible defensive effort. David Meyler was superb and led his side with zealous enthusiasm, breaking up wave after wave of Welsh attacks. When the final whistle blew the travelling fans and Irish players alike erupted with relief and joy, ecstatic with the knowledge that they had just one final step to take in order to reach the World Cup.
It was a stunning and unlikely victory for Ireland in the Welsh capital. James McClean’s goal was all that separated the sides, but Ireland became the first side in four years to beat Wales in Cardiff. The playoffs provide the final hurdle for Martin O’Neill’s side in their quest for World Cup qualification, and they have every chance of making it through regardless of who they face.
For Wales it was a heart-breaking end to a long qualifying campaign and despite a valiant final effort they missed the game-changing ability of Gareth Bale. Welsh football has is in a good place even without the World Cup to look forward to, and there are a number of talented young players amongst their ranks as they look to the future.
Wales: Hennessey, Gunter, Davies, A. Williams, Chester, Allen (J. Williams, 37’), Ledley, Ramsey, King (Woodburn, 65’), Lawrence, Robson-Kanu (Vokes, 71’)
Ireland: Randolph, Ward, Clark, Duffy, Christie, Brady, Hendrick, Meyler, Arter (Whelan, 78’), McClean, Murphy (K. Long, 90+2)
Goals: McClean (0-1, 57’)
Referee: Damir Skomina
Yellow Cards: Allen (16’), Murphy, (72’), Clark (79’), McClean (90+2), Meyler (90+6)
Red Cards: None
Wales: Hennessey 6, Gunter 6, Davies 6, A. Williams 5, Chester 6, Allen 6 (J. Williams 5), Ledley 5, Ramsey 5, King 5 (Woodburn 6), Lawrence 6, Robson-Kanu 6 (Vokes 5)
Ireland: Randolph 8, Ward 7, Clark 8, Duffy 8, Christie 7, Brady 7, Hendrick 8, Meyler 9, Arter 7 (Whelan n/a), McClean 9, Murphy 7 (K. Long n/a)
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