Ireland paid a heavy price for a valuable and hard-fought point on the road to Russia last night as captain Seamus Coleman suffered a horribly broken leg in a scoreless draw with Wales.
The incident, in the 79th minute, saw Wales reduced to 10 men with the sending off of Neil Taylor but, though the Irish pretty much laid siege to the visitors’ goal for the remaining 14 minutes of play, they couldn’t find the finish that would have turned one point into three.
Which is probably only fair since, on the night, Wales were much the better side for long spells, even if a typically brave and committed defensive display by a weakened Irish side meant the threat of Gareth Bale was largely nullified, and goal chances, for both sides, few and far between.
But the night will largely be remembered for what Martin O’Neill described as “a very bad” break for Everton captain Coleman.
The conventional wisdom on qualification holds that you win your home games and draw your away ones to create the basic platform for a successful campaign. But with Ireland having already taken seven points from three games on the road, last night’s draw can hardly be considered a setback, given it came against a Welsh side of some serious quality.
After almost every other day in the build-up had brought another Irish withdrawal, Martin O’Neill had initially seemed able to buck the trend last night by naming injury doubt James McCarthy in his starting line-up, though Everton manager Ronald Koeman would hardly have regarded that as good news.
In any event, it all proved academic, the unfortunate McCarthy lasting no longer than the warm-up, so that, at the shortest possible notice, it was David Meyler who took his place in time for the national anthems and the tributes to Derry City’s Ryan McBride, former FAI president Milo Corcoran and former international Ray Brady, brother of Liam.
If the home dressing room needed any additional reminder of the potential scale of the challenge last night, it came with the news that Welsh manager Chris Coleman was able to start proceedings by fielding th 11 players responsible for putting three past the Belgian side which had put three past Ireland at Euro 2016.
For Ireland, the big concern was that the absence of Robbie Brady and, in particular, Wes Hoolahan would rob the side of that spark of invention which has made such a critical difference in previous big games. And so it proved. Certainly, the contrast in the styles of the two sides was glaring from early on, much of the Welsh play going through Joe Allen in the middle as they looked to string together the passes, and bring Aaron Ramsey and, of course, Bale into the game.
Ireland’s main forward tactic, by contrast, basically involved Seamus Coleman hitting it long towards Jon Walters, in the hope that the target man would get a headed flick-on to set Shane Long running into space.
Wearing five on his back and his heart on his sleeve, an early crunching tackle by James McClean on Bale had a ‘welcome to the Aviva’ flavour about it and, as such, represented the essence of Ireland’s early endeavour as, via the application of huge amounts of energy, they busied themselves with getting into Welsh faces and knocking the visitors out of their slicker stride.
In truth, it all made for fairly frantic, if full-blooded, fare, the game still in search of some clarity and class as the whistle for the break loomed.
Such quality football as had been on show had almost all been demonstrated by players in red shirts. For the home side — who, defending in numbers, were effectively playing as if they were away from home — what passed for highlights all had to do with industrious stuff like prodigious tracking back, timely interventions and meaty tackles, Coleman not far behind McClean in winning the approval of the crowd when it came to curbing the Welsh threat. But of the sight of either Irish man bombing up the flanks, there was virtually none, the half ending with the rather more emblematic image of Stoke team-mates Joe Allen and Glenn Whelan going mano a mano, as the Welshman protested that the Irishman had caught him with a dangerous elbow.
Despite the at times fierce physicality of the game, the Irish defence had done well to avoid conceding free-kicks in dangerous areas, the first such chance of the night for Bale to wave his magic wand coming three minutes after the restart. But Darren Randolph was able to watch it all the way and make a comfortable save. A minute later though, the Irish ‘keeper was flying across his goal as a far more potent Bale effort, this time from play, whistled just wide of the post.
Again, it was Wales dominating the ball, spreading the play and pegging the green shirts back in their own half, every Irish player committed to playing his part in a collective defence and, as Glenn Whelan’s bandaged head illustrated, willing to take the pain whenever required.
But when, in the 68th minute, Coleman crumpled under what looked a terrible tackle by Taylor, the pain was evidently and distressingly excessive, a stretcher required to take the stricken captain from the field of play while referee Nicola Rizzoli had no hesitation in showing straight red.
Roared on by the crowd, a fired-up Ireland immediately set about trying to make their man advantage pay, with a McClean volley flashing narrowly wide via a deflection, after Coleman’s replacement, Cyrus Christie, had done well to cross the ball into the danger area.
Responding to his team now being able to take the initiative, Martin O’Neill sent Aiden McGeady into the fray with just over 10 minutes to go but, though Ireland pressed for the winner right to the end, with the Welsh defence living on its nerves, the alternative headline of the night was almost written by that man Bale when he finished a solo counter-attack that had the Irish shirts back-pedalling, with a fierce shot that shaved the outside of Randolph’s post.
Subs for Ireland:
Cyrus Christie for Seamus Coleman (70) Aiden McGeady for David Meyler (80)
Subs for Wales:
Sam Vokes for Hal Robson-Kanu (45) Jazz Richards for Joe Ledley (71)
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