Wales 0-1 Republic of Ireland: McClean secures playoff for Ireland, breaking Welsh hearts in Cardiff
By Daniel J. McLaughlin
It seemed like the luck of the Irish was running out when Wales leapfrogged Martin O'Neill's side in Group D last month. When the Republic of Ireland fell short against Serbia, losing 1-0 in Dublin, and Wales successful against Moldova, the Dragons flew over the Irish into second place. A month later, and the qualification hopes for both sides rested on their final Group D game in Cardiff.
The two Home Nations rivals needed a victory to guarantee them a playoff place, and if results elsewhere went their way, possible automatic qualification for the 2018 World Cup. The latter was not to be, with Serbia winning their game against Georgia, but the three points were imperative for a chance to compete in Russia next year.
The visitors dug in their heels, soaking up the Wales pressure, and then ruthlessly securing their win to the devastation of Chris Coleman's side. Credit has to be given to Martin O'Neill, who recently signed a contract extension with the national side, whose tactics - while not being aesthetically pleasing - are effective, with the team showing both character and organisation (take note, Gareth Southgate).
Wales were in control for much of the first half, but resolute defending from the visitors left the Dragons frustrated, who were missing their creative force Gareth Bale due to injury. Hal Robson-Kanu headed high and wide from a Joe Ledley corner, and Aaron Ramsey hit his shot well over the bar from way out. They were unable to break through, as Ireland challenged for every ball while maintaining their strong backline.
The important clash was unsurprisingly physical, and Joe Allen felt the brunt of it when he was left concussed on the 37th minute. The Stoke City midfielder was left sandwiched between James McClean and David Meyler, and the Wales medical staff immediately recommended his substitution.
Hal Robson-Kanu forced an excellent save from Darren Randolph when the teams returned for the second half. The West Brom player met the cross with his head, with the goalkeeper brilliantly tipping Wales' best effort of the game over the bar.
Ireland started to look more confident as the game wore on, and they were rewarded with a goal from McClean on the 57th minute. Jeff Hendrick robbed the ball from Welsh captain Ashley Williams, and surged down the right. His cross missed the defenders, with Harry Arter playing an excellent dummy, and fell to the feet of McClean, who hit it first time past a flat-footed Wayne Hennessey in goal.
Martin O'Neill's side stubbornly dropped deeper to protect their win, and their doggedness and courage paid off as they secured a playoff place, leaving Wales deflated and defeated at the Cardiff City Stadium.