Wales’ Dreams Crushed
by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (March 26th 2013)
Despite being the better team Chris Coleman’s Wales came away with nothing but dreams of what might have been at the Liberty Stadium tonight. Gareth Bale’s 21st minute penalty was all the had to show for a dominant first half where Tottenham Hotspur’s top-scorer showed what the fuss was about. “They are a good side, especially Bale,” Croatia’s goal-keeper Stipe Pletikosa said.
His sentiments were echoed by his coach Igor Stimac. “They are different side to one we met in Croatia,” he said. “We were lucky in the first half not to concede more. We were not passing the ball well. We were not moving the ball.” The Croatians weathered the storm and came into their own in the second half with two goals to snatch a victory that kept them in the hunt for automatic qualification for Brasil’s World Cup next year.
Meanwhile, barring a miracle Wales will miss out again. They last appeared in the World Cup finals 55 years ago. After bossing the first half Wales looked set to build on their away win in Scotland that revived hopes of qualifying against the odds. Victory over Croatia would have brought them within four points of Stimac’s side, but with less than 15 minutes remaining Lyon’s Dejan Lovren’s swerving 25-yard pile-driver beat Boaz Myhill for the equaliser and ten minutes later Eduardo grabbed a late winner. They have four matches and a mathematical chance of qualification now
Bale signalled his intentions early. A mazy run after six minutes could not be stopped by fair means, so former Spurs team-mate Vedran Ćorluka upended him unceremoniously. Ćorluka was rightly booked. His free-kick posed not threat to Pletikosa. Croatia had their moments too through Lovren and Eduardo, but neither effort stretched Myhill.
Despite being the better side Wales had nothing to show for their efforts until Celtic’s Joe Ledley jinked into the box from the right and won a penalty by tripping over Lovren’s outstretched leg. Referee Luca Banti cautioned Lovren too. It was hardly Bale’s best spot-kick, but Pletikosa went the wrong way to give Wales a deserved lead.
Chris Coleman inherited the Dragons squad in terrible circumstances following the untimely death for Gary Speed. It has taken time to gel, but the first half especially showed progress. Pletikosa was by far the busier keeper in the first half. Swansea City’s Ben Davies turned defence to attack, finding Hal Robson-Kanu on left wing.
The Reading forwards display would have impressed his new manager Nigel Adkins. Robson-Kanu pulled it across for Bale to shoot from 20 yards out. Pletikosa responded with a firm parry to his left. He was involved again on 37 minutes, winning back possession close to his own goal-line with a ‘robust’ challenge and surging forward before releasing Bale on the right. “While not blaming him, you would have bet your house in him scoring that,” Welsh captain Ashley Williams said. Bale uncharacteristically blasted well over. He could have had a first-half hat-trick.
Robson-Kanu needlessly got involved with Pletikosa after Craig Bellamy had exchanged passes with Bale and shot. Pletikosa gathered, but was impeded by Robson-Kanu. It cost him a ban for Wales’ next World Cup match, as Banti cautioned him.
“We made good changes, especially [Ivica] Olić when he came on,” Stimac said. “He made the difference. Definitely, it’s not an alibi, [but] I said before game against Serbia that game is going to cost us emotionally. All our best players were out of the game. We showed great character. Second half we came back well.”
Shakhtar Donetsk’s time at Arsenal was plagued by a bad injury which robbed Arsène Wenger’s side of his best. He should have done better seven minutes into the second half, but headed wide. He will still be wondering how he didn’t score with just under an hour played. Myhill pulled off a wonder save, although Eduardo looked off-side. Ivan Rakitić’s cross found his captain Darijo Srna, whose shot was deflected by Eduardo from point-blank range. Myhill parried instinctively – a superb save.
Two minutes earlier the impressive Jonathan Williams was teed up to shoot by Robson-Kanu after Bellamy nodded it into his path, but Williams’ shot went just wide of Pletikosa’s goal.
Robson-Kanu was replaced by Ashley Richards after 63 minutes. His first contribution was to be fouled by a slightly late challenge by Real Madrid’s Luka Modrić. It was more clumsy than malicious but earned Banti’s displeasure enough to put Modrić out of the next match. Less than five minutes later substitute Mateo Kovačić of Internazionale tripped Bale and was cautioned.
Smash and Grab
With an automatic trip to Brasil at stake and news filtering through that rivals Belgium had taken the lead Stimac knew that he needed something from the trip to Swansea. Mario Mandžukić is keeping Mario Gomez out of Bayern Munich’s team, but the striker had a disappointing night, missing two presentable first half chances before making amends.
His shot was blocked, but he retrieved the ball and teed it up for Lovren to let fly from 25 yards out to cancel out the goal that the penalty he conceded had given Wales. West Bromwich Albion’s keeper Myhill should have done better, even though it swerved late. Bale had a chance, but shot across Pletikosa and wide of the far post two minutes later. Just over five minutes later Seville’s Ivan Rakitić was found at back post and set up Olić, who proved profligate with poor effort, but soon made amends.
Olić found space on the left and crossed for Eduardo, who chested it down hit it on the volley past the frantic efforts of both Ashley Williams and West Ham’s James Collins to score through Myhill’s legs from 10 yards out. Myhill should perhaps have done better. Croatia held on to grab all three points.
“The Welsh side was top today,” Stimac told reporters, but the plaudits came as cold comfort for Wales’ skipper Ashley Williams. “That’s easy for him to say now,” Williams said wryly.