Marc Davies reviews Wales’ recent World Cup Qualifying matches
Wales entered the World Cup qualifiers against Scotland and Croatia knowing that they needed a positive pair of results to keep their hopes alive to qualify for the 2014 competition in Brazil. Having lost their opening two group games against Belgium and Serbia, Wales knew that it was vital to beat Scotland and avoid defeat in Croatia to get back on track for the road to Rio. The games also provided Chris Coleman to arrest a poor form of five successive defeats and arguably determined whether or not he had a future as Wales manager.
Wales 2-1 Scotland
With so much of the pre-match talk dominated by Coleman’s controversial decision to hand over the captain’s arm band to Ashley Williams from Aaron Ramsey, anyone could have been forgiven for forgetting that Wales had a vital World Cup qualifier to attend to. With first and second choice goalkeepers Wayne Hennessey and Boaz Myhill out injured, Coleman elected to stick Crystal Palace ‘keeper Lewis Price between the sticks. Coleman also handed a surprise debut for Swansea City’s youngster Ben Davies who replaced his injured club teammate Neil Taylor at left back, while Norwich City’s Steve Morison deputised up front in the absence of Craig Bellamy. It proved to be a challenging yet ultimately joyful night for the Welsh at a rain lashed Cardiff City Stadium.
The game got off to a frenzied start with the visitors exerting a fair amount of pressure on the home defence early on before Gareth Bale provided the first notable moment of danger after dragging a shot across goal narrowly wide. Wales then began to turn the screw as Joe Allen saw a goal bound strike blocked by Gary Caldwell before Steve Morison wasted a glorious opportunity to put the Welsh ahead after heading wide from close range following a smart cross from Bale. Wales were immediately made to pay for that missed chance as the resulting goal kick was flicked on by Steven Fletcher who put James Morrison clean through on goal with the West Brom midfielder making no mistake by smashing the ball past Price after 27 minutes to give the visitors a precious lead against the run of play.
Wales started the second half strongly and had a couple of legitimate penalty shouts turned down by the referee after Aaron Ramsey and substitute Craig Davies both went down under challenges in the penalty area. Ramsey should have levelled for Wales when he was put clean through on goal by Ben Davies but wastefully shot wide. Wales were almost immediately punished for the miss after Steven Fletcher nodded the ball into the net but saw his effort ruled out after Charlie Adam’s cross was adjudged to have drifted out of play although replays suggested this was a harsh decision.
Wales made the most of their fortune as they levelled the score in the 80th minute after Shaun Maloney was adjudged to have fouled Bale in the penalty area, and the Tottenham star stepped up to smash the resulting spot kick past Scottish ‘keeper Allan McGregor. Although replays suggested that any contact made by Maloney was very minimal, justice was served following the referee’s decision to ignore earlier clear-cut penalty appeals from the home side. Things then got even better for the Welsh nine minutes later after Bale received a pass from David Vaughan and blasted a 25-yard left-footed effort right into the top corner of the net to complete a remarkable turnaround for Wales. The Welsh managed to see out the stoppage time without any problems and claimed a long awaited and important win that kept their World Cup hopes alive.
Croatia 2-0 Wales
Having picked up a valuable win against Scotland, it was important for Wales to take advantage of the boost in morale and pick up at least a point in Osijek against a classy Croatian side in order to stay in the right direction on the road to Rio. Wales’ task of avoiding defeat was made more difficult than originally anticipated as they were dealt a blow with the omission of former captain Aaron Ramsey through suspension and was replaced by Leicester City’s Andy King. The poor state of the pitch also added salt to the wounds as Wales’ luck ran out on a night they were made to rue costly errors.
Croatia unsurprisingly controlled the first half with Luka Modric in particular performing well, while his former club teammate Gareth Bale found it difficult to get going for the visitors after finding himself being closely monitored on a regular basis by the opposition. Wales had ‘keeper Lewis Price to thank for keeping the score level after producing smart saves from Darijo Srna and Mario Mandzukic but was unable to stop the visitors from falling behind in the 27th minute following an error by newly appointed captain Ashley Williams. The error happened after the Swansea defender laid on weak back pass to Price who in turn was forced into a panicked clearance which to his horror bounced straight off Mandzukic and enabled the striker to have the simple task of slotting into the empty net. This was a crushing blow for Wales and things could have got worse shortly after but Price thankfully managed to produce another fine save from a close range Eduardo Da Silva effort to ensure that the visitors did not fall further behind before half time.
Things did not get any better for Wales in the second half as the home side continued to dictate the play and almost doubled their lead straight after the interval as Ivan Perisic saw his shot deflected wide over the goal by Ashley Williams. Price once again kept Wales in the game after tipping a Mandzukic effort wide before Croatia’s relentless pressure finally paid off. From the resulting corner, Price blocked a header from the unmarked Perisic but was left helpless when Eduardo smashed the rebound into the back of the net to give Croatia a comfortable lead in the 58th minute. The writing was on the wall for the Welsh as all the optimism developed from the win against Scotland quickly faded away and memories of the 6-1 defeat against Serbia began to creep in.
Coleman tried to force his side back in the game as he bolstered his attacking options by brining on three strikers in the shape of Simon Church, Sam Vokes and Hal Robson-Kanu. Despite these substitutions, Croatia came close to adding a third as Eduardo almost scored his second goal of the night after smacking his header against the crossbar. Credit must be given to Wales though as they continued to dig in and almost scored after the ever-improving Gareth Bale forced Croatian ‘keeper Stipe Pletikosa into a couple of smart saves. Ultimately though it proved to be another night of disappointment for Wales as they saw their hopes of qualifying for the Word Cup all but finished. The way they gave away two soft goals showed how far behind Wales are in terms of competing amongst the elite, and Coleman will have his work cut out as he attempts to prove that he has what it takes for Wales to become a threat again.