Last stand in Cardiff caul­dron

Wales fans see game as a kind of corona­tion for their golden gen­er­a­tion

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Front Page - Keith Dug­gan in­Cardiff

A rou­tine as­sign­ment for Martin O’Neill’s Ire­land then; march into the par­ti­san frenzy of Cardiff City Sta­dium, con­jure up a goal, with­stand an in­evitable on­slaught, shat­ter Wales’ in­cred­i­ble foot­ball re­nais­sance and then move on to the play­offs.

As ever with Ir­ish foot­ball teams and qual­i­fi­ca­tion, tonight’s fi­nale prom­ises to be nerve-wrack­ing. Martin O’Neill is tem­per­a­men­tally welle­quipped for these one-off raids and Scot­land’s 2-2 draw away to Slove­nia yes­ter­day at least meant that the cal­cu­la­tors could be set aside.

More sad­ness for Gor­don Stra­chan’s team has left the other Celtic na­tions to duke it out here. A score draw would al­most cer­tainly se­cure Wales a play­off. Win in Cardiff and Ire­land will get their play­off; ei­ther team could even top group D when the fi­nal whis­tles sound in a fan­ci­ful sce­nario that would see Ser­bia some­how slip up at home against Ge­or­gia.

“It is very strange,” O’Neill said care­fully of the multi-lay­ered pos­si­bil­i­ties. “But we can’t con­sider other things.”

The lo­cal in­ter­pre­ta­tion of this match is that it will con­firm Wales’ sta­tus as the up-and-com­ing na­tion of the in­ter­na­tional scene. For Wales and Chris Cole­man, tonight has been set up as a kind of corona­tion for a gen­er­a­tion of foot­ballers who have breathed fire through the Welsh sense of pride and na­tional iden­tity.

Once, that was the pre­serve of the coun­try’s dash­ing rugby teams. Now, on the back of last sum­mer’s cava­lier dash to the semi-fi­nals of the Euro­pean cham­pi­onships, this Wales team has a chance to join the John Charles’s 1958 side by mak­ing it to a World Cup.

Cole­man’s at­ti­tude has been to li­onise the achieve­ments of his team while draw­ing a line un­der both their re­cent suc­cesses and the his­tor­i­cal dis­ap­point­ments suf­fered by Welsh foot­ball teams.

“1958 is noth­ing to do with this squad. You can look back and say we have never done this or that but not these play­ers. They haven’t been in­volved in squads for the last 50 or 60 years. What they can do is the best they can for the na­tion. They are do­ing fan­tas­ti­cally well. We don’t re­ally talk about any­thing other than what we need to be do­ing right now.

Golden era

“It is a golden era. They were la­belled as a golden bunch be­fore they qual­i­fied and I fought against that be­cause they hadn’t earned it. They have made the dif­fer­ence and gone up a step fur­ther than any­one who came be­fore them. But that is in the past and it won’t help us to­mor­row night. It is only our­selves.”

The ab­sence of Gareth Bale deep­ens the bur­den of ex­pec­ta­tion. It was Bale who scored to dig out re­sults in the 1-1 draws at home to Ge­or­gia and Ser­bia. Af­ter their 4-0 dis­man­tling of Moldova in the open­ing game in Septem­ber 2016, Wales have been steady rather than eye-catch­ing but have el­bowed their way into con­tention af­ter Fri­day night’s tough-minded 1-0 win over in Ge­or­gia, a victory earned with­out Bale as guid­ing light.

“We have no divine right to be run­ning away with a group,” said their long-serv­ing de­fender Chris Gunter. “It is some­thing Wales teams have never done and I think it would be dis­re­spect­ful to the other teams to say we should. If you look across the board there are still a lot of teams fight­ing. I am sure the feel­ing with peo­ple in work to­mor­row is that they can’t wait to come down to the sta­dium.”

Gunter was one of those who played in the tepid 3-0 de­feat against Ire­land in the Na­tions Cup six years ago.

“A lot has changed since then. If you could sum up how the na­tion feels about the team now com­pared to then, it would be night and day.”

That surg­ing be­lief leaves Ire­land in a stark place. O’Neill is twitchy on the eve of run-of-the-mill in­ter­na­tional matches so when he made an ap­pear­ance be­fore the Re­pub­lic’s run-out in the sta­dium last night, his mind was clearly else­where.

Even as he spoke, Leigh Grif­fiths had put Scot­land 1-0 up against Slove­nia. Had that proved a fi­nal re­sult, then Ire­land’s fate would have been de­pen­dent on events else­where.

In­stead, O’Neill drew on the mem­ory or the Re­pub­lic’s full-hearted per­for­mance against Italy in Lille in a must win-game in the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onships last sum­mer.

Fur­nace

The key dif­fer­ence is that match was played in an in­dif­fer­ent city soaked with sum­mer rain against an Ital­ian side who needed noth­ing from the game. Tonight, the com­pact foot­ball sta­dium on the edge of Cardiff will be the fur­nace around which the en­tire coun­try will gather.

In Lille, Ire­land left it dan­ger­ously late, snatch­ing a fa­mous win when Rob­bie Brady came streak­ing onto Wes Hoola­han’s crafted ball to head home a bril­liant goal. But in the past few games, Ire­land have had a marked dif­fi­culty in con­coct­ing and con­vert­ing sim­i­lar chances and proved un­able to score against both Wales and Ser­bia in Dublin when both vis­it­ing teams were re­duced to ten men.

“Well, first of all I don’t think we are the only side that maybe didn’t score 11 ver­sus 10 with 20 minutes to go or what­ever the Ser­bian player went off,” O’Neill con­tended. “Per­son­ally speak­ing, I wish he had stayed on and al­lowed Mur­phy through on goal be­cause I think he would have scored. So yeah, I think you have to utilise that ex­tra player if you can and get a lit­tle bit of width.

“Wales lost a player and I thought we were very strong. Ai­den McGeady was caus­ing a lot of trou­ble on the left but we just couldn’t get that elu­sive goal. So if the game is to be de­cided in the last third, I think it is a case of throw­ing ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing at it.”

The Ir­ish man­ager was pre­dictably vague about his pos­si­ble first XI: Brady and James McClean will re­turn but among his key de­ci­sions will be whether to stick with Daryl Mur­phy af­ter his two-goal de­liv­er­ance and how to use the mer­cu­rial gifts of Wes Hoola­han.

In fact, the best Ire­land can prob­a­bly hope for is a dead­locked score mid­way through the sec­ond half, nerves shot across the val­leys, Bale for­lorn and help­less in the stands and Hoola­han slink­ing into the mix to pro­duce the mo­ment of guile and stealth needed.

It will take a re­mark­able last stand from the team for the Ir­ish fans to end up ser­e­nad­ing St Mary Street af­ter mid­night. But by then, it’s un­likely that any­one in the city will have any voice left.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: IAN WAL­TON/GETTY IMAGES

The Wales and Re­pub­lic of Ire­land teams be­fore the Group D qual­i­fier at the Aviva Sta­dium last March.

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