KEIR RADNEDGE in CARDIFF: A dramatic second-half goal from West Bromwich winger James McClean fired the Irish Republic to a 1-0 win over hosts Wales and into the World Cup European play0ffs.
For Wales, semi-finalists in the European Championship in 2016, there will be no glorious summer in Russia. Missing injured Gareth Bale they lacked a cutting edge and were ultimately brought down by the superb organisation and relentless effort of the Irish defence – which sometimes included just about all their players.
With Serbia beating Georgia 1-0 in Belgrade to win the group, Ireland took second place to secure their place in the playoffs with Wales third but down and out.
For Wales manager Chris Coleman this was effectively the end of the line. He had already said he would not consider staying on for another qualifyingm campaign.
Coleman made one change from the side who won last Friday in Georgia with Hal Robson-Kanu taking over in attack from Sam Vokes. Irish manager Martin O’Neill made three changes with Robbie Brady, McClean and Harry Arter replacing injured Shane Long, Callum O’Dowda and Wes Hoolahan.
The match unfurled like a high-speed, high-tension cup tie. Wales forced two early corners with Robson-Kanu heading wide and Aaron Ramsey having a 25yd drive tipped over the bar.
At the other end Jeff Hendrick miss-hit his shot when the ball popped up in front of him in a crowded Welsh goalmouth.
That half-chance encouraged the Irish to begin pressing forward and start to push Wales back. The Welsh cause was further upset when Joe Allen was injured in a midfield collision and had to be substituted.
Wales began the second half on the front foot, as they had begun the first.
James Chester glanced one header into the side net from Ramsey’s right-wing corner then keeper Darren Randolph made a superb flying save to a goal-bound header from Robson-Kanu.
Ireland responded perfectly by racing down to the other end and taking the lead.
Ashley Williams lost possession after a roll-out from keeper Wayne Hennessey, and was outpaced by Hendrick who raced to the byline and crossed. Arter dummied over the ball and McClean thumped it home.
It was the first time Wales had fallen behind in any of their group matches and, for all their all effort and passion, they created little serious danger as they chased the goals for the unlikely victory which was now essential.
Wales, increasingly desperate, thumped the ball long repeatedly into the penalty box and the well-organised Irish defenders thrashed it away – upfield, to the wings, into the stands, anywhere but always away to safety.