When Wales and the Republic of Ireland were drawn together in Group D on that July evening at the Konstantinovsky Palace in Saint Petersburg there was anticipation aplenty. Days later, when the schedule of fixtures was released, it was confirmed that they would face each other on the final matchday. Just imagine if it all came down to that match, many thought. Well, over two years later and with nine qualifying matches played, it did.
On a mild autumn evening in Cardiff, two nation’s hopes of qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup rested on a single match. The permutations were numerous but the requirement was simple – win and you progress. The atmosphere was everything that had been anticipated and more. The PA system was toned down, Welsh arias were sung with gusto by the crowd, and The Barry Horns played with oomph aplenty. However, the game rarely reciprocated the din and passion of the crowd. Both managers had game plans and both sets of players were keen to stay in their respective shapes. Hal Robson-Kanu – who started ahead of Sam Vokes with Chris Coleman opting for pace rather than power – headed over the bar from a Joe Ledley corner in what was Wales’ only goalscoring opportunity in the first half. The Irish defence was disciplined and shielded well by captain, David Meyler.
With Wales already devoid of Gareth Bale, the hosts suffered another blow ten minutes before half-time when Joe Allen was forced to leave the pitch after being sandwiched between Meyler and McClean. It turned out to be a turning point as Wales lost all rhythm and direction after Allen’s departure. Robson-Kanu did, however, manage to force an excellent save from Darren Randolph at the beginning of the second-half. The Republic grew in confidence after the interval and their abrasive approach paid off in the 57th minute. Ashley Williams lost possession on the edge of his penalty area after a poor throw-out by goalkeeper Hennessey. Jeff Hendrick had plenty of space to cross for McClean who slammed the ball into the Welsh net – his fourth goal of the qualifying campaign.
Wales had plenty of possession after the goal – just as they had for the majority of the match. There was plenty of time for Wales to stage a rally but their possession did not lead to enough clear-cut chances. Ireland – who had less than 30 percent possession – soaked up all the pressure. Duffy, Clark, and Meyler were outstanding in repelling Wales’ attacking threat. There was to be no late drama as Ireland hung on for the victory and a place in the playoffs.
It was an excellent away performance by the Republic of Ireland – defensively solid yet clinical when the goalscoring opportunity came – Martin O’Neill emphasised post-match that “to win on their territory was a great result for us,” and his role in their recent success must not be underestimated. The manager and Roy Keane appear to be instilling a physical and mental toughness in this set of Irish players, which is proving crucial – the same toughness that Sir Alex Ferguson once instilled in Keane himself.
On the other side of the tunnel, the atmosphere in the Welsh dressing room was one of deflation and disappointment. Chris Coleman and his Welsh squad had come so close – winning three of their last four qualifiers. Yet it is undeniable that these Welsh players are not quite at the same level as they were last year at the European Championship – both for Wales and their domestic sides. The struggling Crystal Palace keeper Hennessey along with the below-par Ashley Williams and Aaron Ramsey have all been disappointing since their successes last summer.
The match may not have lived up to the raucous pre-match atmosphere or the two-year build-up but that was irrelevant to the thousands of travelling Irish fans. “The impression of our campaign? Absolutely delighted,” O’Neill said at full-time. “When the draw was made I thought we had a very difficult group. We have come through – fantastic. We are in the playoffs.”