Sunday 22 October 2017

Serbia and Ireland remain four points clear in Group D after Wales surrender lead in Belgrade

Football Soccer - Serbia v Wales - 2018 World Cup Qualifying European Zone - Group D - Rajko Mitic Stadium, Belgrade, Serbia - June 11, 2017 Wales manager Chris Coleman with Ashley Williams after the game Action Images via Reuters / Peter Cziborra
Football Soccer - Serbia v Wales - 2018 World Cup Qualifying European Zone - Group D - Rajko Mitic Stadium, Belgrade, Serbia - June 11, 2017 Wales manager Chris Coleman with Ashley Williams after the game Action Images via Reuters / Peter Cziborra

Phil Blanche

Aaron Ramsey evoked the echoes of the past with a Panenka penalty in Belgrade, but Wales were denied a precious World Cup victory by Aleksandar Mitrovic's equaliser.

At the same stadium where Czechoslovakia's Antonin Panenka scored the winning goal in a shoot-out against West Germany in the 1976 European Championship final and gave his name to the chipped penalty, Ramsey repeated the act to give Wales a 35th-minute lead.

It was coolness personified by Ramsey but Wales - who were without suspended talisman Gareth Bale - could not hang on for the victory which would have meant so much.

As it is, they remain four points behind Group D leaders Serbia and the Republic of Ireland, who had been held earlier 1-1 at home by Austria.

It was Wales' fifth successive draw, but in the cold light of day manager Chris Coleman will consider this a job well done ahead of September qualifiers against Austria and Moldova.

Exactly a year ago to the day Wales beat Slovakia in Bordeaux at the start of a Euro 2016 journey which ended in them reaching the semi-finals.

But World Cup qualification has been far more of a struggle, with four successive draws leaving them playing catch-up.

Coleman had accepted this was a game his side simply could not afford to lose if they still harboured hopes of winning the group, and they began in positive fashion when skipper Ashley Williams almost connected with Joe Ledley's third-minute corner.

Dave Edwards and Ramsey were being asked to support Sam Vokes quickly, while Serbia were slow to get their playmaker, Southampton's Dusan Tadic, on the ball.

Wayne Hennessey had to race out of his penalty area to complete one clearance, but Wales were untroubled in the opening quarter as Serbia failed to give their large support any encouragement.

Serbia's lack of attacking fluency persuaded skipper Branislav Ivanovic to fire from long range, but Hennessey saw the shot sail over his crossbar.

But the attempt seemed to stir Serbia from their lethargy and Wales were grateful to clear Antonio Rukavina's cross as the decibel levels were turned up.

Wales were suddenly under the cosh, but then they took the lead after Serbia goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic allowed the ball to run across his body and brought down Ramsey on the edge of his box in a wide position.

Ramsey's free-kick was heading towards Vokes, who was winning his 50th cap on the night, when Portuguese referee Manuel de Sousa spotted a foul on the big Burnley striker and pointed to the penalty spot.

The stadium held its breath but Ramsey was the coolest man in the ground as he chipped his penalty past Stojkovic, who had dived into the opposite corner.

Wales survived a huge handball appeal at the start of the second half when Chris Gunter got in the way of a Serbian cross.

But referee De Sousa was unimpressed and he was similarly unmoved when Nemanja Matic fell in the penalty box after a meandering run.

Serbia were really ramping up the pressure and Joe Allen was forced into a challenge on Filip Kostic which brought the first yellow card, ruling the Stoke midfielder out of the next game with Austria in September.

Aleksandar Kolarov almost provided further punishment but his 30-yard free-kick just dipped too late to trouble Hennessey.

Wales were hoping the Serbian storm had blown over but the hosts levelled with 17 minutes remaining.

Substitute Aleksandar Prijovic broke behind the Wales defence and his pass allowed Newcastle striker Mitrovic to skip past Williams and finish clinically, just like he had done in November's 1-1 draw in Cardiff.

It was a bitter blow for a Wales side who had defended so resiliently, but they held on for a point and stay in the race for World Cup qualification.

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