Gareth Bale proves the difference again with crucial assist as Wales squeak by Northern Ireland
Wales 1-0 Northern Ireland
It was the cruelest of cuts for Northern Ireland, but even when he does not win games for Wales with goals of his own, Gareth Bale always finds a way and poor Gareth McAuley will never forget it.
Outplayed and out-thought by Northern Ireland for the majority of this Euro 2016 second round tie in Paris, Wales will now travel to Lille on Friday for a quarter-final against either Belgium or Hungary after McAuley’s 75th minute own-goal separated these two British Isles rivals.
Wales were poor and Northern Ireland, driven on by the hugely impressive Steven Davis, took to the stage with greater self-belief and organisation.
But as Bale’s cross flashed across goal, McAuley could either divert it into his own net or allow Hal Robson-Kanu to tap it in behind him.
Some choice. The West Bromwich Albion defender tried to clear, but the inevitable happened as the ball crashed into the net.
Northern Ireland have certainly left their mark on this tournament, though, and they go out with their heads high.
Having squeezed into the second round as one of the best third-placed teams in the competition, Northern Ireland were understandably billed as underdogs against a Wales team, inspired by Bale, that had topped Group B to force England to take the hard road to the final as runners-up.
Northern Ireland were more than comfortable with their status as outsiders – a billing which is commonplace for a province of just 1.8 million inhabitants – but Wales are still getting to grips with the pressures that come with the expectancy of being favourites.
Which is why this fixture was the one Chris Coleman’s team wanted least in the second round. It would be stretching a point to suggest that Wales were in a no-win situation, but Northern Ireland were free to play without the fear and inhibition which gripped the Welsh in the first-half.
Northern Ireland began with Kyle Lafferty restored to the team as centre-forward and the 28-year-old’s presence as the focal point of Michael O’Neill’s game gave them a shape and solidity which allowed them dominate the opening 45 minutes.
Bale and Aaron Ramsey were rendered impotent by the defensive nous of McAuley and Jonny Evans, while Oliver Norwood’s tenacity in midfield left Joe Allen growing increasingly frustrated for the Welsh.
And in Davis, the Southampton midfielder, Northern Ireland possessed the best player on the pitch, with O’Neill’s captain dictating the tempo and finding the space that Bale and Ramsey were so desperate to be given.
Wales were tense, but Northern Ireland were infused with the belief that, 34 years to the day since Gerry Armstrong’s goal defeated hosts Spain in the 1982 World Cup, they could produce a result which would rival that iconic performance in Valencia.
The game needed a goal, however, and as much as Northern Ireland chiselled away at creating opportunities, the opener would not come.
Stuart Dallas, the Leeds United midfielder, twice forced saves from Wales goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey inside the opening 22 minute, while Lafferty should have done better when he headed Jonny Evans’s cross over the bar from fifteen yards.
Wales wing-back Chris Gunter was then forced to head clear at the far post to deny Craig Cathcart a clear effort on goal from Norwood’s free-kick.
Having been so ruthlessly destructive when defeating Russia 3-0 in Toulouse on Monday, Wales were now bereft of ideas and Bale could not find a way through the white-and-green wall.
Even off the pitch, the heavily outnumbered Northern Irish fans outsung their Welsh counterparts who were struggling to banish the tension to get behind their team.
Wales simply had to raise their game in the second-half. Coleman’s players had been outfought in every department and Davis had been allowed to run the game.
There was certainly more urgency to Welsh play after the interval, but quality was once again in short supply, with Sam Vokes missing a glorious chance on 53 minutes when he headed Ramsey’s cross wide form 12 yards.
But it was a rare foray into the Northern Irish penalty area, with O’Neill’s team going close with a 30 yard effort from Norwood before the Reading midfielder conceded a free-kick 25 yards from goal with a clumsy foul on Bale.
Having been so stymied and frustrated by his opponents, this was the chance Bale had been searching for, but despite unleashing a well-struck free-kick, goalkeeper Michael McGovern covered his angles and dived to his left to push the ball away.
The tension began to gnaw away at the game, but James Chester produced a crucial, and perfectly-timed, tackle on Lafferty on 72 minutes to deny the Northern Irishman a clear shot at goal following a breakaway down the left.
But just as extra-time began to loom large, Bale finally produced the moment of decisive quality which makes him the so important to Wales.
Having received the ball from Ramsey on the edge of the penalty area, the Real Madrid forward whipped an unplayable cross into the Northern Irish six-yard box and McAuley, knowing that Hal Robson-Kanu was set to pounce behind him, saw his attempted clearance end up in the back of his own net.
So much for the luck of the Irish. It deserted McAuley and his team-mates just when they needed it most, but Wales, and Bale, were happy to take a heavy slice of it to seal their place in the quarter-finals.
Wales (3-5-2): Hennessey; Chester, A Williams, Davies; Gunter, Allen, Ledley, Ramsey, N Taylor; Vokes, Bale.
Northern Ireland (4-1-4-1): McGovern; Hughes, McAuley, Cathcart, J Evans; C Evans; Ward, S Davis, Norwood, Dallas; Lafferty.
Referee: Martin Atkinson (England)
(© Independent News Service)
Independent News Service