Sunday 22 October 2017

Wales draw little comfort as Serbia hit back to stay top

Serbia 1 Wales 1

Aaron Ramsey applauds the Welsh supporters. Photo: Reuters
Aaron Ramsey applauds the Welsh supporters. Photo: Reuters

James Candy

Wales remain unbeaten in their World Cup qualifying group, but a fifth successive draw means they still have a mountain to climb if they are to reach the finals of a second successive championship.

A brilliantly taken penalty by Aaron Ramsey gave Wales the lead, but Aleksandar Mitrovic, the man who had broken Welsh hearts with a goal five minutes from time in Cardiff, struck with his side's first shot on target in the 73rd minute to steal the draw that kept his side on top of the table.

Joe Ledley puts in a tackle against Serbia's Dusan Tadic. Photo: Getty Images
Joe Ledley puts in a tackle against Serbia's Dusan Tadic. Photo: Getty Images

Wales arrived in Serbia seeking to exorcise the demons from their last visit, when they were beaten 6-1 in Chris Coleman's fourth game in charge, and to close the gap at the top of Group D in their World Cup qualifying group. A tough task without the suspended Gareth Bale and against a team they had never before beaten.

A year on from their opening match against Slovenia at Euro 2016, where they reached the semi-finals, it was a test of Coleman's side.

To stay on course for Russia this was almost a must win game, and certainly a no-lose match.

David Edwards came into the side to fill Bale's boots and Jazz Richards took over from Neil Taylor as left wing-back. Wales set out to frustrate the Serbians, and shackle the most dangerous attacking formation in the group with 12 goals in four games, and they succeeded in doing that throughout a highly accomplished first-half performance.

Serbia's Aleksandar Mitrovic fires an ambitious overhead kick. Photo: Getty Images
Serbia's Aleksandar Mitrovic fires an ambitious overhead kick. Photo: Getty Images

They looked positive from the start and Edwards and Ashley Williams caused concern in the home defence as they attacked a third-minute corner from Joe Ledley. That was a much better set-piece effort that the Serbs managed with five first-half corners and the only real threat on Wayne Hennessey's Welsh goal came from two headers from Mitrovic.

The Serbs enjoyed 62pc possession in the first half, but only skipper Branislav Ivanovic showed any real creativity. They were toothless going forward and became the masters of their own downfall in defence.

A moment of madness from goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic in the 33rd minute, when he came out of his area and brought down Ramsey, not only earned him a yellow card, but gifted Wales a dangerous free-kick.

Joe Ledley chipped the ball into the danger area, Sam Vokes rose to meet it and Crystal Palace's Luka Milivojevic stupidly pulled at his shirt.

Wales' goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey in full flight. Photo: Getty Images
Wales' goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey in full flight. Photo: Getty Images

Portuguese referee Jorge Sousa had no hesitation in pointing to the penalty spot.

With Bale away, up stepped Aaron Ramsey to complete Stojkovic's misery and embarrassment by beating him with a Panenka dink to gave Wales the lead.

To add even more significance to the Arsenal midfield star's effort it came at the same stadium, and in the same goal, that Anton Panenka scored his audacious penalty in the European Championship final in 1976.

After such an insipid first-half, Serbia came out with all guns blazing after the break and finally got playmaker Dusan Tadic into the action. He began to cause difficulties down the left and thought he should have had a penalty when a cross hit the outstretched arm of Chris Gunter.

Wales were being forced to play on the break as the home side pushed forward and some great interplay between Ramsey and Gunter earned a corner that gave Vokes the chance to crown his 50th cap with a goal. Unfortunately for him, his header just went over the bar.

Wales midfielder Joe Allen tries a shot on goal. Photo: Getty Images
Wales midfielder Joe Allen tries a shot on goal. Photo: Getty Images

As the pressure mounted, so the 50,000 crowd began to find their voice and, when Wales switched off moments after making a change by introducing Emyr Huws for Edwards, Mitrovic struck.

Nemanja Matic's ball was flicked on and Mitrovic hammered home with his left foot.

Wales refused to go into their shell and Ramsey forced Stojkovic to save at his near post, but the win they craved looked less and less likely, meaning it's effectively as-you-were in the group on a day that every team will feel could have been better. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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