Saturday 21 January 2017

Welsh stung as Serbs hit late leveller

Wales 1 Serbia 1

Stuart James

Published 13/11/2016 | 02:30

Wayne Hennessey of Wales is unable to stop Aleksandar Mitrovic of Serbia scoring a dram/Getty
Wayne Hennessey of Wales is unable to stop Aleksandar Mitrovic of Serbia scoring a dram/Getty

It was one of those nights when the woodwork made all the difference. With five minutes remaining the width of the post denied Gareth Bale a second goal that would have put this crucial game to bed and less than 60 seconds later the Serbia bench exploded with joy after Aleksandar Mitrovic scored via the upright at the other end.

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Disappointment was written all over Welsh faces at the final whistle and it is now becoming a worryingly familiar story for a country that is playing catch-up in Group D. This was the third time in this qualification campaign that Wales have led but failed to see the game out, with Serbia following Georgia and Austria by pegging them back and exploiting a defensive fragility that was not evident a year or so ago.

Gareth Bale of Wales scores the first goal. Photo: Getty
Gareth Bale of Wales scores the first goal. Photo: Getty

On a tense night in Cardiff, Bale registered his 26th international goal to move within two of Ian Rush's all-time record and looked to have put them on the path to a vital victory. Yet Mitrovic, who was a handful all evening, followed up the two goals he scored against Austria last month with another as he met Antonio Rukavina's cross with a header that struck the post and ended up in the back of the net despite Wayne Hennessey's best attempts to claw it clear.

The result leaves Wales four points adrift of Ireland, whom they face in Dublin in March, and two behind Serbia. The concern for Wales is that four of their remaining six qualification fixtures are away and they will now almost certainly have to win in Ireland if they are to have a chance of finishing top of the group.

Serbia were always going to be awkward opponents. Wales had lost their two previous matches against them, with an aggregate score of 9-1, and there is no shortage of individual talent within the Serbia squad. The visitors certainly started brightly here and looked the more accomplished side in the opening 25 minutes as they passed the ball with confidence, yet it was Bale who provided the defining moment of a lively first half.

From Serbia's point of view it was an awful goal to concede. Matija Nastasic should have comfortably dealt with James Chester's hopeful pass into the right channel but the former Manchester City defender lost concentration and allowed Hal Robson-Kanu to pick his pocket. Robson-Kanu, to his credit, then had the presence of mind to look up and pick out Bale in space on the edge of the area and there was a sense of inevitability about what would happen next.

Luka Milivojevic of Serbia blocks the attempt on goal of Aaron Ramsey of Wales. Photo: Getty
Luka Milivojevic of Serbia blocks the attempt on goal of Aaron Ramsey of Wales. Photo: Getty

Bale drilled a low, powerful shot that flashed past Vladimir Stojkovic, the Serbia goalkeeper, who was partially unsighted as Branislav Ivanovic tried to block. The ball was struck towards the middle of the goal but with so much pace on the shot, Stojkovic was unable to get down quickly enough to keep it out.

Encouraged by that breakthrough, Wales nearly added a second moments later when Aaron Ramsey fed Bale on the left flank. His deep centre found Robson-Kanu but the West Brom striker, who was starting his first game for club and country since the Euro 2016 semi-final against Portugal, headed narrowly wide.

Serbia had their chances at the other end and, with Wales playing in a 4-2-2-2 formation, exploited the space that opened up for them on the flanks. Nemanja Matic, who drew a fine save from Wayne Hennessey on the stroke of half-time with a vicious shot from the edge of the area, was able to spray the ball wide almost without looking at times.

It was Ivanovic, though, who came closest to scoring for Serbia before the interval. Climbing above Chester, the visitors' captain met Dusan Tadic's corner with a downward header that Neil Taylor cleared off the line. Tadic, who required lengthy treatment later in the half and left the pitch with blood all over his face after Taylor kicked him on the nose, was causing Wales problems and Ashley Williams did well to get in the way of a shot from the Southampton winger.

Wales manager Chris Coleman reacts. Photo: Getty
Wales manager Chris Coleman reacts. Photo: Getty

Wales needed a second goal to give them some breathing space and Bale, with a dipping 30-yard free-kick that Stojkovic repelled at his near post, nearly provided it. The game was being played at a frenetic pace and threatened to boil over on a couple of occasions. Nastasic was booked for a late tackle on Ramsey in the first half and Bale picked up a yellow card for dissent. In the second half Taylor enraged the Serbians with a full-blooded challenge on Antonio Rukavina in front of the dugout. The most telling blow, however, was landed by Mitrovic four minutes from time.

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