Wales qualified for their first World Cup since 1958 after edging past brave Ukraine 1-0 courtesy of an unfortunate own goal from Andriy Yarmolenko.
Played in an emotional atmosphere in Cardiff, Yarmolenko’s header past his own goalkeeper from a Gareth Bale free-kick in the 34th minute proved the decisive moment.
Wales, usually so reliant on Bale and Aaron Ramsey, had their goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey to thank. He wrote himself into Welsh football folklore with a performance of incredible defiance up against a Ukraine side that gave everything. The pick of his nine saves came late on when clawing away an Artem Dovbyk header that was heading for the top corner.
Such was his brilliance, Ukraine’s nine shots on target were the most by a team without scoring during a game in the 2022 European World Cup qualifying campaign.
It was a cruel way for Ukraine’s qualification effort to end with Olexandr Petrakov’s side, who beat Scotland in the playoff semi-final, again showing a level of football which would have certainly merited a place in November’s 32-team tournament.
Wales had their chances to wrap up the game too as Brennan Johnson rattled a post and Bale was denied by Georgiy Bushchan, but this was a performance all about their relentless rearguard which has now kept 12 clean sheets in their last 19 home internationals.
Wales: Hennessey (9), Ampadu (7), Rodon (7), Ben Davies (9), Roberts (7), Ramsey (6), Allen (8), James (7), Neco Williams (8), Bale (7), Moore (7).
Subs: Wilson (6), Johnson (7), Norrington-Davies (n/a).
Robert Page’s men can now can start planning for Qatar where they have earned a place in Group B with England, USA and Iran.
‘A spine-tingling occasion’
Sky Sports’ Lewis Jones in Cardiff:
“There were faces of disbelief in the crowd. Were they dreaming? They can pinch themselves all they want. This wasn’t a dream. Wales are going to the World Cup after a remarkable football match with a team that also deserve to grace the World Cup.
“Ukraine threw everything they had at Wales for their country. But Wales – led by Ben Davies and the unbeatable Hennessey – repelled it all in one of the grittiest defensive showings you are ever likely to see on the international stage.
“And boy did the home fans and their players celebrate. Iconic Welsh singer Dafydd Iwan took the microphone at full-time to sing ‘Yma o Hyd’ – a song the players and fans have adopted as their second anthem. To feel the emotion, joy, relief and beauty of a country coming together to sing as one was a privilege to behold.
“A spine-tingling occasion.”
Man of the match: Wayne Hennessey
Managers are defined by their decision making. On an absolutely gigantic night for his career, Page made the right one by keeping with Hennessey in goal. Danny Ward has had the No 1 jersey for the last two years but Hennessey stepped in to cover for the semi-final victory over Austria and, despite not playing a domestic club game since January 2, he was ready.
And boy did he need to be.
When a team has 22 shots on goal and create an expected goals total of 1.91, the opposition team need their goalkeeper to be inspirational. Ukraine’s attack peppered Hennessey with quality attempts but he stood strong, making nine saves in total with two standing out in the second half when Ukraine were banging on the door in front of their fans.
The first was with his legs to deny Viktor Tsygankov from close before somehow Roman Yaremchuk fluffed the rebound, and the second save will go down in Welsh football history, denying Dovbyk with a one-handed save.
Hennessey said: “It’s absolutely incredible, not just for me but everyone who’s been on this pitch tonight, the lads who didn’t get on, the staff, everyone.
“It was probably my best game in a Wales shirt, at such a key stage obviously. You have to give credit to Ukraine who are a fantastic team, but I’m absolutely buzzing.
“We’ve got a good generation, young lads, older lads who have been there, even the members of staff. They’ve been fantastic and fully deserve it.”
Bale: It’s what dreams are made of
Wales captain Gareth Bale tells Sky Sports:
“The result is the greatest result in the history of Welsh football. We’re ecstatic, we’re going to a World Cup.
“It’s what dreams are made of, it’s what we’ve been working towards since we first came here.
“I’m speechless, we’re so happy, we did it for all our amazing fans and words can’t describe how I’m feeling at the moment.
“It was a difficult game, I haven’t done so much over the last four weeks because of my back spasm, it was tough to get through the game but the most important thing was to get through.”
Wales must now turn their attention to three Nations League fixtures this month. Page’s side face the Netherlands on Wednesday and Belgium on Saturday – with both matches kicking off at 7.45pm in Cardiff – before facing the Dutch again, this time in Rotterdam at 7.45pm on June 14.
Ukraine also have three Nations League matches, starting with a trip to Dublin to face the Republic of Ireland on Wednesday, with kick-off at 7.45pm.
Ukraine then have ‘home’ matches against Armenia on Saturday (2pm kick-off) and the Republic of Ireland on June 14 (kick-off 7.45pm). The games will be held in Lodz, Poland, due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
When and where is the 2022 World Cup?
The 2022 World Cup in Qatar kicks off on Monday November 21 at the Al Thumama Stadium when Senegal take on the Netherlands in Group A followed by hosts Qatar against Ecuador at the Al Bayt Stadium.
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