Wales 0-1 Republic of Ireland: Ireland are through to the World Cup play-offs
Those tuning in with no dog in the fight must have been praying for a late Wales equaliser that would have eliminated both sides from the World Cup mix.
One for the football purists and hipsters it wasnât and neutrals everywhere may be horrified at the prospect of Ireland, in particular, gracing the biggest stage in Russia next summer after a batten-down-the-hatches performance like this.
It was an atrocious game of football but Martin OâNeill has a knack of getting the big results when he needs them most and this was another of those nights. The scenes on the whistle, with Roy Keane embracing OâNeill, and the players celebrating in front of the away end were reminiscent of Lille last summer.
Results in other groups had gone Irelandâs way in recent days and the signs of a shift in momentum were there. James McClean reclaimed his mantle of talisman ju st before the hour mark after drilling his fourth goal of the campaign. All of them have come on the road, all of them match-winning interventions.
But while the West Brom winger will get the headlines, Irelandâs defenders were the real heroes. In an extraordinary closing 10 minutes, with an increasingly desperate Welsh side now needing two goals, they were bombarded from all angles.
But led by warhorse Shane Duffy and captain fantastic David Meyler - just in front of the back four - they restricted the Euro 2016 semi-finalists to shots from outside the box for the most part and bravely held out, surviving five agonising minutes of injury-time,
Shane Longâs absence through injury was a bigger blow than we realised. He cannot hit a barn door for club or country and is 24 games without a goal. But his pace and energy would have given Ireland a n out during the first-half.
The direct - and often aimless - approach was entirely predictable, of course, but 34-year-old Daryl Murphy has no pace whatsoever and those booming punts forward from the defence rarely found a white shirt and the hosts were handed possession on a plate.
Ireland were pinned deep from as early as the fifth minute and the defending was seat-of-the-pants stuff at times with Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark scrambling to keep the house in order with the speed of Welsh ball.
Joe Allen was their orchestrator in chief but was forced off eight minutes before the break with an apparent concussion. And his loss was keenly felt by the home side who had earlier gone close from a Hal Robson-Kanu header and an Aaron Ramsey shot tipped over the bar.
After the Stoke City man left the field, Walesâ tempo dipped noticeably and, soon enough, it was as if they had been dragged down to Irelandâs level. Letâs not kid ourselves, you will not see a worst first-half in a long, long time.
Wales were poor, but Ireland were awful. The home crowd sang âYouâre just a sh*t Northern Irelandâ on repeat. And yet OâNeillâs charges finished the half with their tails up. Chances were few and far between but they were no longer suffocated by their hosts and McClean and Harry Arter tried to do some damage.
Arter was restored to the team having been dropped against Serbia and Moldova while McClean was suspended for that 2-0 win last Friday. Together, they gave energy to the cause. And Stephen Ward, arguably Irelandâs most improved player of this campaign, played his part in trying to stir something down the left.
Jeff Hendrick ought to have got a cleaner shot away when Cyrus Christieâs booming throw-in pinballed around the crowded box while Shane Duffy then dragged a low shot narrowly wide and Robbie Brady found Wayne Hennessey after cutting in from the right.
There was nothing pretty about it - and even thatâs being kind - but the momentum shift was noticeable and then copper-fastened by McCleanâs clinical shot to the net right in front of the 3,500 travelling fans who just lost it.
Hennesseyâs casually rolled a ball to Ashley Williams but the Wales skipper was dispossesed by Hendrick who then scampered up the right flank and slipped a low cross into the box. Arterâs brilliant step over bamboozled the defence and McClean did the rest.
Now it was over to the Irish defence to step up to the plate. Wales reacted by springing wonderkid Ben Woodburn into the mix as news filtered through from Belgrade that Serbia had finally taken the lead against Georgia, therefore killing giddy talk of topping the group.
Ireland had a major job on their hands just to see out this game, never mind the rest of it. And what an excruciating closing 15 minutes as the broken hosts - by now a draw was no use to them - tried to rally by peppering Darren Randolphâs penalty box.
But Duffy, Meyler et all were Dragon slayers.Source: Google News