Soccer

Harry Wilson double gives Wales win over Croatia to boost qualification hopes

Wales’ Harry Wilson celebrates scoring against Croatia (Tim Goode/PA)
Wales’ Harry Wilson celebrates scoring against Croatia (Tim Goode/PA) Wales’ Harry Wilson celebrates scoring against Croatia (Tim Goode/PA)

Harry Wilson celebrated his 50th cap with a brilliant double as Wales boosted their Euro 2024 automatic qualification hopes with a 2-1 win over Croatia in Cardiff.

Wilson rewarded an excellent home performance with two clinical second-half strikes, enough to stave off a late Croatia rally that saw Mario Pasalic convert 15 minutes from time.

Wales came into the contest knowing victories in their final three group games were probably necessary to secure a top-two place and avoid the play-offs in March.

Rob Page’s side still have to work to do in November – away to Armenia and at home to group leaders Turkey – but upsetting the 2022 World Cup semi-finalists in such fashion offers great encouragement.

This win takes Wales into second place above Croatia by virtue of them having done better in their head-to-head ties, the Dragons having drawn their opening game of the campaign 1-1 in Split in March.

The result will ease the pressure on manager Rob Page, who awoke to newspaper headlines on Saturday morning linking Roy Keane to his job.

Page vowed he would shut out all external noise at his pre-match press conference in which he became visibly emotional, and that chatter will now surely dim after this result.

Victory in Latvia last month had boosted Wales, but Aaron Ramsey and Brennan Johnson had picked up injuries and were replaced by David Brooks, a scoring substitute in Riga, and Kieffer Moore.

Ben Davies took over the captaincy in Ramsey’s absence as Wilson won his landmark cap, exactly a decade on from becoming Wales’ youngest-ever player at the age of 16 years and 207 days.

History was against Wales with no wins in seven games against Croatia and the visitors were smarting from Thursday’s 1-0 loss to Turkey – their first-ever home defeat in European Championship qualification.

The result eases the pressure on Rob Page
The result eases the pressure on Rob Page The result eases the pressure on Rob Page (centre) (Tim Goode/PA)

Croatia made three changes from that shock defeat but their midfield triumvirate of Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic – the heartbeat of this ‘Golden Generation’ – remained in tact.

Wales started on the front foot but the pattern of the game soon developed with Croatia dominating possession and the hosts seeking to spring swift counter-attacks.

Wilson almost profited from one such raid after Brooks had tricked Josko Gvardiol in the build-up. The ball just run away from Wilson, who could not connect with enough power and Domagoj Vida blocked.

A period of Croatia keep-ball ended with Josip Juranovic crossing and Petar Musa heading over, but it was a rare moment of concern for Wales who were gaining in confidence.

Ethan Ampadu picked out Brooks after 21 minutes and his feather-like touch and pass freed Wilson through the middle.

Wilson was brought down in full flow by Vida, with the close attendance of Gvardiol preventing the yellow card from turning to red.

Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic tipped away Wilson’s resulting free-kick and was also equal to Neco Williams’ curling effort after the wing-back had cut inside on his right foot.

Gvardiol’s intervention was also needed to deny Connor Roberts after Wilson’s clever back-heel had created space.

Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic made three changes at half-time, a sign that he was unimpressed with his side’s first-half performance.

But Wales struck within two minutes of the restart as the visitors failed to cope with Danny Ward’s punt forward.

The ball came off a Croatia player under pressure from Moore and Brooks volleyed the ball on.

Wilson took it in his stride and outpaced Vida to chip the ball over the stranded Livakovic for his seventh Wales goal.

The lead was doubled after 60 minutes as Daniel James, having replaced Brooks three minutes earlier, swung over a cross that Wilson glanced beyond Livakovic into the corner of the net.

Croatia rose from their slumber with Ward saving from substitute Dion Drena Beljo, the ball turned inches around the post.

Modric’s resulting corner glanced off the head of Moore for Pasalic to pounce from close range, but Wales held on for a famous victory against the world’s sixth-ranked team.