Wales qualify for first World Cup in 64 years with win over Ukraine
Wales have qualified for their first World Cup in 64 years by beating Ukraine in the play-off final Cardiff.
Gareth Bale, so often Wales’ talisman, again produced the decisive moment with his 34th-minute free-kick headed into his own net by Andriy Yarmolenko.
But Wales goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey took the man-of-the-match honours with an outstanding display that kept the gifted Ukrainians at bay.
It is the first time they have qualified since the 1958 FIFA World Cup in Sweden, where they were eventually eliminated by Pele’s Brazil in the quarter-finals.
Wales go into Group B, alongside England, United States and Iran at Qatar 2022.
The Ukraine players took to the field each draped in their national flag, amid an incredible atmosphere as rain fell steadily.
And the game got off to a frantic start, with Wales’ Joe Allen booked for a foul and Oleksandr Zinchenko sending the resulting free-kick into the Wales net.
But referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz ruled Zinchenko had taken it too quickly and the goal was disallowed, with Ruslan Malinovskyi’s second attempt saved by Wayne Hennessey, but it was an early alarm bell for Wales.
Wales looked nervous and disorganised during the opening flurries and goalkeeper Hennessey was called upon far more than manager Robert Page would have liked.
But Wales grew steadily into the contest, forcing a couple of corners as Bale and Aaron Ramsey probed for openings on a lightning-quick surface.
Ukraine were more assured in the final third but it remained 0-0 after 25 minutes.
Hennessey continued to be the busiest player on the pitch, being forced into two more key saves.
But just when Wales needed something special, it duly arrived courtesy of their inspirational leader Bale.
His free-kick from just outside the Ukraine penalty area deflected off Andriy Yarmolenko’s head and flew past goalkeeper Georgiy Bushchan as Wales went ahead 11 minutes before half-time.
Wales’ opener looked likely to go down as a Yarmolenko own goal, and was credited that way on UEFA’s website.
It mattered not a jot to Wales, though, as they led 1-0 at the interval and were just 45 minutes away from World Cup qualification for the first time since 1958.
Wales made a bright start to the second period and should have doubled their lead after 48 minutes.
Neco Williams broke superbly out of his own half and Moore delivered a pinpoint ball into the Ukraine penalty area but Ramsey could not finish, sending a glancing shot wide.
Page was then yellow-carded after protesting to the fourth official following a foul on James, and his team continued to push for a second goal.
Wales knew they could not switch off, and they were indebted to Hennessey again when he made a point-blank save with his feet to deny Viktor Tsygankov.
It was an inspired display by Hennessey, and then a last-ditch tackle by Ben Davies kept Ukraine out.
It was a nerve-shredding business for the home fans but their World Cup dream remained alive with 58 minutes gone.
The rain continued to pour down and Page made a change 20 minutes from time, sending on Nottingham Forest’s Brennan Johnson for James.
Ukraine continued to have plenty of possession, but it proved a rare quieter phase for Hennessey as Wales looked to put the game out of Ukraine’s reach.
Johnson’s first contribution was to hit the post from an angled shot then after more good work by the youngster, Bale was denied by a brilliant reaction save from Bushchan.
Harry Wilson joined the action eight minutes from time, replacing Bale, and then it was that man Hennessey’s turn again to deny Ukraine an equaliser.
Ukraine substitute Artem Dovbyk soared on to a cross inside Wales’ penalty area, yet Hennessey denied him by palming his header away in acrobatic fashion.
It was now all hands to the pump for Wales as Ukraine grew increasingly desperate, throwing players forward, and the home side had to endure five minutes of added time.
But they kept their composure and concentration, closing out the game to secure a World Cup place with a 1-0 win, and the celebrations could begin.
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