KEIR RADNEDGE in CARDIFF —- Wales were the major surprise of the 2016 European Championship. Their progress to the semi-finals and Iceland’s appearance in the quarters were seized on by European federation UEFA to justify the expansion of the tournament to 24 teams.
The Red Dragons’ return to the finals in 2020 – with seven games being played over the border in England – is not a given but they logged a positive start by defeating Slovakia 1-0 in their opening qualifier in a Group E which includes World Cup runners-up Croatia as well as the much-less-daunting Hungary and Azerbaijan.
Wales captain Gareth Bale has largely happy personal memories of Slovakia. He scored his first Wales goal against them as a 17-year-old back in 2006 and then again in the 2-1 victory at Euro 2016 which propelled Wales towards the last four. Now he has a highly promising attacking aide in David Brooks, the first player hailed simultaneously as Wales’ young and senior player of the year.
Brooks, 21, made a further decisive impression after only four minutes. His cross after a dash down the right was intercepted by Peter Pekarik but the Slovak rightback was caught in possession by Dan James who thumped home from the edge of the penalty area.
Manager Ryan Giggs was delighted with the Swansea man, saying: “He’s brought his club form to the international stage and I’m delighted for him. His overall game was fantastic and he was a threat all day long. He’s intelligent, works hard and, with that raw pace, you are a threat at any level.”
Wales, young and eager, caused the Slovakia defence no end of further problems, particularly through the fluid positional inter-changing between Bale, Brooks and Harry Wilson.
Bale had two half-chances which went to waste so it was Brooks who came closest to increasing Wales’ lead, first with a low drive then with a curler from the right; both flew narrowly wide.
The second half opened as the first had ended, with Wales on the front foot. But, as Giggs observed later: “We didn’t punish them enough in the first half.”
So, after Bale had a header acrobatically caught by keeper Martin Dubravka, Slovakia seized the initiative.
First Albert Rusnak darted through the middle only to see his initial shot blocked by the diving Hennessey and the rebound ricochet wide off his nose. Moments later, with Slovakia digging up reserves of energy, pace and creativity, Wales’ keeper dived to his left to save from Robert Mak.
Amid a flurry of substitutions by both managers Giggs took the pragmatic option of bringing on veteran defender Ashley Williams in place of winger James who had faded from the game.
Slovakia, for all of Wales’ increased caution, should have levelled in the 81st minute. The ever-more-dangerous Rusnak crossed superbly from the right, substitute Michal Duris’s header was only parried by Hennessey and David Hancko miscued what should have been a simple shot into the net.
Moments later Pekarik, at full tilt on the right, headed Hamsik’s angled cross into the side net.
Slovakia sacrificed passing accuracy for endeavour in the closing minutes. In the fifth minute of stoppage time they claimed a penalty for handball. German referee Felix Zwayer saw nothing and, with no VAR to help, blew the final whistle instead.
The Slovaks were furious. They had only themselves to blame for not having started their football much earlier in the game. As coach Pavel Hapal said: “We were unlucky not to take a point but in the first half we were too nervous and lost too many one-to-one challenges.”
Wales thus held on for a valuable opening victory – Giggs’s fifth in his 11 matches since succeeding Euro 2016 hero Chris Coleman.