Wales earn point at Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan 1 Wales 1

Azerbaijan 1 Wales 1

Wales clung on for a precious point they just about deserved from their World Cup qualifying group six opener after grabbing the lead through skipper Gary Speed.

On the day Welsh boss Mark Hughes celebrated his fifth year in control of his country, substitute Robert Earnshaw came off the bench to hit a post in the dying minutes as Wales came so close to a triumph on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

Azerbaijan had equalised through a long-range Rashad Sadikhov free-kick soon after Speed’s strike, and had Wales hung on to that lead a little longer the result could have been so different.

England will be here next month and they will find a side who have improved immeasurably since Carlos Alberto took over, and an atmosphere and culture which will test them to the limits.

Sven-Goran Eriksson sent coaches Paul Goddard and John Gorman to Baku to watch this match, involving two teams who will soon meet the English in World Cup group six qualifiers.

Wales boss Mark Hughes sprung no surprises with his line-up, including Cardiff’s Danny Gabbidon at left back in place of the injured Ben Thatcher.

The Tofig Republican Stadium was ringed with an imposing military presence following days of fears over terrorist attacks aimed at the Azerbaijan president, who attended the match.

There were thousands of soldiers, most in full riot gear, and it took a full hour to get inside the arena.

The oil rich Caspian Sea region is considered these days a prime target and the cauldron of steel and guns did little to ease the anxiety of the Welsh support – some of them will have been here before, however, for a Euro 2004 qualifier two years ago.

Wales started brightly with Speed heading a Hartson cross powerfully into the arms of Dmitry Kramarenko in the home goal.

Azerbaijan responded with a long range Rashad Sadikhov free kick which went just wide, before Aslam Kasimov and Gurna Gurbanov tried their luck with long-range efforts which did not trouble Paul Jones.

Wales had some calm control at the back until Mark Delaney tried a risky pass which was cut out by Mahmud Gurbanov – with the Aston Villa man booked for hauling his opponent back.

Robbie Savage was penalised in the 22nd minute for a foul on Aftandil Hajiyev on the touchline – with Croatian referee Edo Trivkovic promptly booked the home player for feigning injury.

Brazilian legend Carlos Alberto, now Azerbaijan coach, was screaming at his team from the bench as they allowed their early fire to drop away, Wales having calmed the initial flurry of attacks.

But soon after the tricky Anatoliy Ponomarev spun in the box to fire inches over the angle, to Jones’ relief.

In the 28th minute Ponomarev got himself booked for sticking out a hand to knock down a Gabbidon pass aimed at Speed.

Wales had managed precious little up front, but one neat ball from Hartson looked to have set up Mark Pembridge on the edge of the box, but he was shut down quickly by Hajiyev.

And in the 37th minute Pembridge’s long throw evaded the defence and fell for Hartson on the far post, who saw his fierce drive blocked by a combination of Emin Agayev and Kramarenko – it was comfortably Wales’ best chance of the half.

Those two efforts encouraged Wales to knock the ball around more confidently and search for the openings after a spell of play which had seen the home nation threatening to take control.

Pembridge had seemed worried by a leg knock in the first half, and was replaced by Sunderland’s John Oster at the break, with Koumas switching to the left flank and Oster taking over on the right.

And the change brought immediate dividends for Wales when they went ahead in the 48th minute.

A great run by Gabbidon down the left eventually opened up the play for Koumas to lift a fine cross in from the flank.

Hartson rose to nod the ball down invitingly into space for Speed to run in and volley home from six yards.

Another flick-on from Hartson fell to Koumas, who juggled the ball and then volleyed it wide from 20 yards.

But the Wales lead was short-lived when Robert Page was penalised for a foul on Ponomarev some 30 yards out.

When Sadikhov launched the free kick it flew through the Welsh wall like a missile.

Jones flung himself full length, and got his hands to the ball – but could not stop it arrowing into the corner of the net for the first goal Wales had conceded in 326 minutes of international action.

Then Ponomarev turned on the edge of the box to drill a low shot inches wide of an upright.

Azerbaijan had come alive and Wales needed to regain their composure and rediscover their possession passing of earlier.

They tried, but the hosts were now really up for the battle, with Ponomarev and Gurna Gurbanov really buzzing, losing their markers too easily to cause real problems for the Wales backline.

Nadir Nabiyev replaced Mahir Shukurov for Azerbaijan with a little more than 20 minutes on the clock.

Adil Mammadov was the next Azerbaijan player on in place of Vusal Huseynov in the 72nd minute, with Wales now reduced to hitting on the break as the hosts searched for the winner.

With six minutes to go Azerbaijan took off the dangerous Ponomarev and brought on Iigar Gurbanov, the third of the set of brothers to be used by the hosts.

Jones needed to be down swiftly at his near post to keep out a long-range drive from Hajiyev with three minutes left, and Nabiyev then turned to fire over from 25 yards.

Robert Earnshaw replaced Koumas with two minutes to go – his first input was a diving header which Kramarenko pushed onto a post following Oster’s fine run and cross.

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