Ireland beat Gareth Bale-less Wales, book World Cup playoff spot
CARDIFF, Wales -- Three points from a dramatic game in Group D as Ireland eliminated Wales from playoff contention in World Cup qualifying.
1. McClean cracker puts Ireland in the playoffs
Wales' wait goes on. They have not played at a World Cup finals since 1958 and thanks to Monday's 1-0 defeat, Ireland will take their place in the playoffs instead, their hopes of making Russia their first finals since 2002 still very much alive. James McClean's 57th minute goal, a singular moment of quality in a game of mistakes and fiercely contended challenges, proved enough to take them through.
Wales ended the night with heavy pressure, echoing the utterly dominant manner in which they began the game. Their surges and deep crosses pinned the Irish in the defensive third of the pitch but this time, they were playing in complete desperation as Ireland doggedly cleared their lines time and again.
The opening minutes had reminded the crowd of when Wales charmed Euro 2016 in reaching the semifinals, though without the true star quality of Gareth Bale, reduced to the role of bystander and motivational speaker by injury. But their drive could not be sustained as Ireland, far less easy on the eye, slowly bludgeoned their way into the game. A Shane Duffy drive across goal reminded that the visitors possessed a threat as Wales' midfield got bogged down the weight of numbers that Ireland manager Martin O'Neill deployed there to slow the game down.
Wales then suffered a major blow when key midfielder Joe Allen had to leave the field in the 37th minute with what looked like a concussion after a collision with David Meyler. That swiftly evened out the contest and Ireland began to become far more surefooted. As expected, and after Ireland captain Seamus Coleman's leg was broken in the previous meeting between these two teams in March, there were some heavy challenges flying in and referee Damir Skomina had to keep a tight rein on a match that might have boiled over at any moment.
In the stands, where smatterings of Irish green were mixed in with the red of the home fans, similar tensions boiled. This was a night of high anxiety where football was always unlikely to flow. When Hal Robson-Kanu's header forced Darren Randolph into a 53rd minute save, it was the result of Wales attempting to begin the second half like they had the first, with momentum. But then came Ireland's goal, a moment of genuine class.
Jeff Hendrick escaped down the right wing, only just keeping the ball in touch. His ball from the byline arrowed into the Welsh penalty area and Harry Arter showed tremendous vision in letting the ball through his legs. McClean's finish was both cool and fierce. It served to knock the stuffing out of the hosts, perhaps suffering a hangover from the burst of emotion that they begun the game with and during a national anthem sung a cappella by the home fans.
With Croatia beating Ukraine and Serbia beating Albania, the permutations of the playoff system meant Wales needed two goals to stay alive. As time ticked on, their dream died though Ireland's lives on.
2. O'Neill's plan comes off
O'Neill's team selection suggested pragmatism. With striker Shane Long ruled out on Monday morning, Ireland lacked the player whose goal against Germany fired Ireland into the Euro 2016 playoff two years ago. That said, he might not have been too much of a loss considering that Long hadn't scored in 24 games and missed a couple of easy chances against Moldova on Friday; the burden instead fell on Daryl Murphy, a striker with Championship side Nottingham Forest who has three international goals to his name in 10 years. Murphy's 34-year-old legs were tasked with chasing down and harrying and he stuck manfully to his task until subbed off in the dying embers.
O'Neill also made the decision to drop Wes Hoolahan, the veteran with a skill level far beyond his Ireland colleagues, introducing Arter to help pack the midfield instead. Arter served as a provocateur in midfield, making a series of tackles and presses that helped stop Wales finding their fluency.
In Sunday's prematch news conference, O'Neill hinted at a similar strategy as Ireland's defeat of Italy at Euro 2016, where his team dug in and waited for their moment to come through Robbie Brady's winner. This was a night to recall that famous occasion in Lille, too; McClean's goal came after his team had soaked up Welsh pressure before seizing their chance. O'Neill (and assistant manager Roy Keane) are not universally popular in Ireland but their critics cannot deny that by qualifying for last year's Euros and the playoffs for Russia, they have delivered no matter how uneasy on the eye the football can be.
3. No Bale, no party for Wales
With Bale absent, Wales had to find a way without their talisman. In Georgia on Friday, Derby County's Tom Lawrence scored a goal of which Bale would have been proud and looked in the mood to repeat his heroics, cutting inside a couple of times to shoot on goal. Though always willing to try and turn a trick or two, Lawrence eventually became lost in the heavy traffic between him and Ireland's goal.
Robson-Kanu had been selected ahead of Sam Vokes for his greater turn of pace against an Ireland defence hardly blessed with speed, and that weapon was also blunted by Ireland sitting so deep. Early on, Aaron Ramsey threatened to take the game by the scruff of the neck but without the interplay he enjoys with his longtime midfield partner Allen, Ramsey (also asked to drop deeper as replacement Jonny Williams came on) could not exert the same influence. A late free-kick that he blazed many yards over the bar suggested the occasion had got to him.
Without Bale's inspiration to show his teammates the way, Wales could not find a route to the victory they required.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.