Coleman hails Lawrence ahead of group finale
Georgia 0 Wales 1
No Gareth Bale, no problem. That was the message from Wales manager Chris Coleman ahead of a crucial double-header of qualifying fixtures, and this spirited squad duly delivered by battling past Georgia thanks to a thunderous Tom Lawrence strike in Tbilisi.
Coming into this clash, with the dream of country's first World Cup finals in 60 years hanging in the balance, the statistics did not make for comforting reading.
Wales had not won a competitive match without Bale since 2013, and had not won an away match without him since 2009.
Coleman needed someone else to step up. In September it was 17-year-old Ben Woodburn who inspired the side to six points against Austria and Moldova. This time it was Lawrence.
The Derby winger, who was replaced by Woodburn in both those games last month, led the charge from the off in just his ninth appearance for his country, wafting past defenders and providing attacking thrust from as early as the third minute.
His strike, only minutes after the break, calmed Welsh nerves and ensured that their destiny remains in their own hands ahead of Monday's showdown with the Republic of Ireland in Cardiff. Second place in the group, Coleman hopes, will be enough to secure a spot in the play-offs next month.
"I am absolutely thrilled for Tom," said Coleman. "He did a real good job for us against Austria in a very tough game. He came off the pitch, Ben Woodburn goes on, scores a famous goal and it was all about Ben.
"Then we go to Moldova and Tom does a job for us there. He comes off the pitch again and Ben goes on and sets up the goal.
"Tonight, it was all about Tom. His job was with possession and without possession and he absolutely nailed it. He was fantastic. His courage and his intelligence, and he showed great maturity. The goal was sensational."
Kicking off hours before Ireland took on Moldova, Wales did not have the luxury of knowing what they needed to produce in Tbilisi. So they went for the kill up front, while the obdurate Ashley Williams and Ben Davies kept things secure at the back.
Coleman resisted the urge to unleash Woodburn from the start, instead shifting midfielder Andy King into an unfamiliar role on the right. Aaron Ramsey, meanwhile, was the player tasked with getting closest to striker Sam Vokes.
Wales needed more than just Ramsey to fill the sizeable void left by Bale, though, and Lawrence was the first to seize the attacking initiative as he darted past a handful of Georgian defenders before teeing up the Arsenal midfielder. Ramsey controlled well but he dragged his shot wide.
Against an assured Georgia midfield, Wales struggled for attacking rhythm in the early exchanges. As would have been feared the moment Bale was ruled out, there was an element of control in midfield, where Joe Allen was as industrious as ever, but a lack of cutting-edge further forward. Vokes and King both spurned chances, then Lawrence curled over from the edge of the box.
And for all the Welsh control, the home side could and probably should have taken the lead through Giorgi Kvilitaia, who headed wide before half-time.
Georgia were made to rue that miss almost immediately after the break. In keeping with his first-half performance, it was Lawrence who made the difference. Picking up the ball on the edge of the box, he had time to turn, steady himself and thrash home a wonderful finish.
It had always felt like finding the net would be the Welsh problem, rather than keeping Georgia out. Without a player like Bale, creativity is harder to find than solidity. Inspired by Lawrence's strike, the Welsh midfield seemed to relax. Soon they were knitting together intricate passing moves deep within Georgian territory. Vokes, Davies and Ramsey all went close.
"We knew it would be tough," said Coleman. "But the game-plan worked. We have been working on it all week and sometimes it has been hard for the players as it has been a bit monotonous, but that is because we knew it would be a tough game."
But slowly and steadily the nerves crept back in. Georgia started to have a go, and Wales sank ever deeper. It was a dangerous ploy, and only a combination of last-gasp clearances, defensive blocks and a close-range save from Wayne Hennessey kept the Georgians out. In the end, though, that was just about enough. Job done. On to Cardiff. (© Daily Telegraph, London)