Bale punished for miss as Eduardo ends Welsh hopes
WALES 1 CROATIA 2
Even the addition of the 'Welsh Iniesta' to their version of Ronaldo and Messi could not prevent the inflicting of the knockout blow to Chris Coleman's World Cup hopes against Croatia.
For 76 minutes, the introduction of Johnny Williams – the teen they call 'Joniesta' because of his playing resemblance to the Barcelona maestro – looked to have revived the nation's qualifying campaign.
In tandem with Gareth Bale, the 19-year-old was inspiring Wales against an increasingly desperate Croatia, but it was not enough.
It was the most accomplished performance of Coleman's reign, the classy Croats pushed until Dejan Lovren's 76th-minute equaliser cancelled out Bale's early penalty and former Arsenal striker Eduardo volleyed the winner.
It was cruel, but this result ends Wales' chances of going to Rio. They had to win, so it was no surprise the line-up was full of adventure. Of greater reassurance was a first-half performance matching the enterprise of the selection.
Coleman had predicted a battle of two geniuses – Bale versus Luka Modric – but it was the latest Welsh prodigy who provided the first welcome surprise of the evening.
Crystal Palace winger Williams' first start was a reward for his influence in the victory over Scotland and he settled immediately, a couple of nimble-footed dribbles livening up the crowd.
Wales' game was based on careful passing and devastating sprinting and a typical burst from Joe Ledley led to the breakthrough from the penalty spot on 20 minutes, with Williams demonstrating his pedigree with the defence-splitting pass in the build-up.
Ledley collected possession, dropped the shoulder and Lovren was flummoxed into a lunge. Bale dispatched the penalty.
It was deserved because Wales were playing with more than just spirit. Equally, Croatia could argue that a 3-3 score would have been a more accurate reflection of the opening exchanges.
Bale continued to make inroads. One run at the heart of the Croatian defence was halted by a cynical lunge from Vedran Corluka.
Another incisive break saw the Tottenham man deftly control Hal Robson-Kanu's looping ball, steady himself and then mystifyingly lift his shot over the bar. Bale was still shaking his head about the miss at half-time, realising that Croatia had shown enough menace to suggest one would not be enough.
Just as it seemed the Welsh had weathered the most intense pressure, Lovren slammed in the equaliser and it got worse when Eduardo, after missing so many chances, had the last word, volleying in with three minutes left. (© Daily Telegraph, London)