James McClean's goal sinks Wales and secures World Cup qualification play-off place for Republic of Ireland
THIS was a crazy, crazy night in Cardiff. The Republic of Ireland are residents of the play-offs at this stage and had no intention of being evicted by their Celtic neighbours Wales.
A stunning 57th minute strike from James McClean – the team’s best player in this qualification campaign – gave the Irish the win they desperately needed to progress to next month’s World Cup play-offs.
When the dust settles on this wonderfully anarchic night in the Welsh capital perhaps we’ll wonder how Martin O’Neill did it.
For it was a treacherous road the Republic travelled in 2017 – but their World Cup dream in Russia is still alive.
After five minutes of agonising stoppage-time O’Neill and his assistant Roy Keane embraced.
Neither man wanted to let go. It was Lille all over again.
The Republic of Ireland players broke their opponents’ will. It was that simple.
For 90-plus minutes, the Irish players were brilliant without the ball. They can happily exist on 30 per cent possession. In fact, it suits them. Don’t give them the ball because they don’t particularly want it.
What they did last night was build a wall at the edge of their own box and Wales simply ran out of ideas as to how to break them down.
If the Welsh ran up one cul-de-sac in a rocking Cardiff City Stadium last night they ran up a thousand.
There were bravehearts all over the field last night – and they were wearing green and white. Take a bow Shane Duffy. He produced his best ever game in his fledgling international career. Harry Arter finally understood O’Neill’s gameplan. He ran all night until he could no longer move.
Daryl Murphy deserves a medal for the amount of lost causes he chased, while McClean roared his way through this tense struggle like his life depended on the outcome.
And few players would have kept chasing the ball the way in which Hendrick did that ultimately led to the goal that sent the Irish into the play-offs.
And yet, all the smart money was going on Wales to go through prior to the game.
The Republic’s pre-match plans were hampered by the news yesterday morning that Shane Long was ruled out through injury.
Whether the Southampton striker would have held onto his place after missing a hat-trick of chances against Moldova last Friday is a moot point.
Regardless, Arter was probably the beneficiary of Long’s 11th hour withdrawal and was drafted into Ireland’s starting XI in the hope of making up for his disappointing display in Tbilisi last month which cost him his place for the Serbia and Moldova games.
As expected, Wes Hoolahan was held in reserve despite his fine midfield display three nights earlier in Dublin, while two-goal hero Murphy spearheaded the Irish attack.
The Welsh were missing the injured Gareth Bale, the man responsible for more than 75 per cent of his side’s goals in qualifying for Euro 2016.
Wales, who had lost just one competitive game in their last 21 outings heading into last night’s showdown, made just one change to the side that came away with a vital 1-0 win in Georgia last Friday.
Hal Robson-Kanu took over from Sam Vokes in attack while Derby’s young gun and goal hero in Tbilisi Tom Lawrence kept his place ahead of Liverpool teenager Ben Woodburn.
Wales were still seeking to end their 60-year absence from the World Cup finals, the Irish a mere 16 years.
As expected, the home side made all the early running, particularly midfield trio of Joe Allen, Joe Ledley and Aaron Ramsey who tried to pass their way through Ireland’s heavily fortified midfield.
They threatened at times and pulled their opponents out of their designated zones but, apart from Ramsey’s rasping drive on eight minutes that was tipped over the crossbar by Darren Randolph, the visitors were decidedly comfortable with anything their hosts threw at them.
The Welsh forced six first half corners and had two free-kicks around the Republic’s box – but none of them caused them any undue stress.
With each passing minute that early-match confidence seemed to drain from the men in red, realising just how difficult a task in trying to break down the Irish defence.
And when Joe Allen was forced out of the game on 33 minutes after McClean and David Meyler conspired to floor the Welsh metronome, the home side’s rhythm was badly upset.
You will have to travel far to see a team that places so little emphasis on keeping the ball than the Republic of Ireland, and yet they still had a couple of half chances in the opening 45 minutes.
Midway through the half, Hendrick scuffed a chance after a long throw in broke to him in the Welsh penalty area and Duffy fired wide after Ciaran Clark re-directed Robbie Brady’s free-kick out to the unmarked Derryman.
The 3,300 Republic supporters behind Randolph’s goal had hearts in mouths seven minutes before the interval when Stephen Ward almost turned the ball into his own goal after a dangerous cross from Allen’s replacement Jonathan Williams.
Ireland’s gameplan was never meant to be easy on the eye. It never is. Last night, its wholehearted design was to stop a football match breaking out. And, to that end, they achieved their goal after 45 minutes.
By sheer force of numbers and an insatiable work-rate, the Irish midfield quelled the Welsh and in doing so quietened the home crowd who had produced an unforgettable rendition of their national anthem, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau.
Wales started the second half brightly.
James Chester hit the side-netting with a 52nd minute header. Robson-Kanu’s glancing header a minute later was brilliantly saved by Randolph.
Despite these chances, Wales were beginning to struggle with the puzzle in front of them.
Ramsey drifted out of the game and his poorly directed free-kicks sucked the life out of the home crowd.
And just when the game seemed set for another period of stalemate, Hendrick broke down the right flank after Wayne Hennessey’s short throw out put Ashley Williams under pressure.
Hendrick raced to the bye-line and fired in a smart low cross. Arter dummied it and McClean was born for this moment as he struck with his weaker right foot and rippled the net. The Republic supporters went ballistic.
If it was possible to mute the volume in the stadium, the closing stages were almost comfortable for the Republic defence.
The Welsh looked a beaten docket long before the final whistle. Chris Coleman cut a dejected figure on the sideline. The final whistle sounded like a symphony to the Irish players. An unforgettable occasion.
You’ll never beat the Irish. It was the mother of all nights in beautiful Cardiff city.
Wales: Hennessey, Gunter, Ashley Williams, Chester, Davies, Allen (Jonathan Williams 37), King (Woodburn 65), Ramsey, Lawrence, Ledley, Robson-Kanu (Vokes 71).
Subs Not Used: Maxwell, Taylor, Bradshaw, Brooks, Edwards, Ampadu, Lockyer, Hedges, Ward.
Rep of Ireland: Randolph, Christie, Duffy, Clark, Ward, Arter (Whelan 78), Brady, Meyler, Hendrick, McClean, Murphy (Kevin Long 90).
Subs Not Used: Doyle, O’Shea, Keogh, McGeady, Hogan, O’Dowda, Hoolahan, Hourihane, Maguire, Elliot.
Booked: Murphy, Clark, Randolph, Meyler, McClean.
Goals: McClean 57.
Ref: Damir Skomina (Slovenia).
Republic of Ireland player ratings
Darren Randolph: Winning his 26th cap, the Middlesbrough ‘keeper made two stunning saves from Ramsey and Robson-Kanu in each half. A few hairy moments in the second half but did well. 8
Cyrus Christie: The Middlesbrough defender has performed well in the absence of Seamus Coleman. Pushed forward and was always an outlet for his midfielders, until the Irish scored and sat in for the remainder. 7
Stephen Ward: The Burnley man, who was winning his 47th cap, had some tricky moments in the first half and almost turned the ball into his own goal. Defended well on numerous occasions in the second half. 7
Ciaran Clark: The Newcastle United central defender’s passing could have been better but he defended stoutly throughout beside Duffy. 6
STAR MAN: Shane Duffy: The big Derryman has grown in stature over the last 12 months and looks a seasoned international centre back. Hal Robson-Kanu had one good chance early in the second half, but led by example by putting his head onto virtually everything. 8
David Meyler: Established himself as first choice since the Serbia match, the Hull City man didn’t have a lot of good possession but, crucially, he kept his defensive discipline and killed the space in front of his central defenders. 7
Jeff Hendrick: The Burnley midfielder did remarkably well to set up McClean’s goal. Never gave the ball up. 7
Robbie Brady: Returned to the starting line-up last night after suspension, the Burnley man always looked like having the beating of Ben Davies. Defended well and was always a good outlet on the counter-attack. 7
Harry Arter: The Bournemouth man was given a golden opportunity to redeem himself in the green jersey and he took it. Started slowly but grew in stature as the game progressed. Passed well and ran himself into the ground, literally. 7
Daryl Murphy: The Nottingham Forest striker kept his place in the side after his two goals against Moldova and chased lost causes all night. Held the ball up well at times, even though he was spent midway through the second half. 7
James McClean: Given his good form in this qualification campaign, it was no surprise the Derryman was recalled for last night’s showdown after suspension. Didn’t have a great first 45 minutes but he executed his goal, with his weaker right foot, superbly. 7
Glenn Whelan: Came in for the tiring Arter and hustled the Welsh into a few mistakes. 6
Kevin Long: Not on long enough to be rated.