Daniel McDonnell on a feisty night in Wales: Spirited Irish earn their shot at glory
Wales 0 Ireland 1
Winning ugly has never looked so good.
On a feisty night in Cardiff, Ireland drained their reserves of energy and courage to keep their World Cup hopes alive.
They did so in a second half where they regained their composure as Wales lost theirs. March's scoreless draw between the sides in Dublin will always be remembered for the horror challenge on Seamus Coleman.
Wales might feel this encounter turned on a first-half collision that brought an end to Joe Allen's evening. They were comfortably the better side during his half hour on the park.
But there was more to this victory than that. Chris Coleman said as much afterwards.
"I'll give Martin O'Neill a pat on the back," he said, "They came here with a game-plan and it worked."
That appeared to be about being hard to beat and then going from there. O'Neill's side duly put together the best passage of play in the game to deliver the only goal courtesy of James McClean.
And from that point onwards, they defended heroically to find the winning line. "This team may lack some things," said O'Neill. "But courage is not one of them."
Shane Duffy was immense along with the rest of the back four and Darren Randolph was fantastic in behind. McClean and Daryl Murphy ran themselves into the ground. David Meyler got in the way whenever necessary. They were legless after five minutes-plus of injury-time but the joy was unconfined.
The atmosphere when the final whistle blew was a world away from the misery at the Aviva Stadium a month ago. In the aftermath of making it to Euro 2016, O'Neill pointed to the doom and gloom after the Scotland struggle in Dublin as an example of the critics getting carried away.
That point still gets raised from time to time. This rescue mission could bring things to another level, although there's still a pretty significant job to do next month.
FIFA's decision to seed the play-offs stiffens that task because Ireland are guaranteed to be on the wrong side of that draw.
"We've a lot of work to do," said O'Neill, who gave Italy a mention. Croatia, Denmark and either Switzerland or Portugal are the other options.
But this was the outcome the 65-year-old and the FAI needed after the haste to announce he was staying on for a third campaign.
Taking the runners-up spot and a play-off from fourth seed is a laudable achievement although there may still be some regret over the points that got away.
Subsequent results could have been affected by it of course, yet a win in Georgia would have put Ireland in a remarkably strong position heading into this match. That said, it was results on the road across the group that carried Ireland through.
And a scenario where a draw would have booked a play-off might well have planted seeds of doubt. This was do or die and that suits the Irish psyche.
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That said, it took a while for O'Neill's players to really enter that mode.
This was never going to be pretty, but the extent of the ugliness in the early minutes was quite extraordinary with Ireland's play limited.
Energised by a powerful rendition of their anthem which offered a glimpse into why Chris Coleman prefers the atmosphere generated in the Cardiff City Stadium, Wales started in the ascendency. They piled on the pressure in a technically proficient way by executing slick passes and consistency bringing the ball into Ireland's final third.
Allen was the conductor with Aaron Ramsey prominent. Ireland actually defended quite stoutly, save for a couple of slack moments of concentration from David Meyler and Ciaran Clark, and the real problem was their dreadful distribution when they got hold of the ball.
Shane Long's hip injury confirmed that Daryl Murphy would start but the way the game panned out might have suited Long as Ireland needed a speedster to chase the Hail Marys that were sent forward.
Murphy is better suited to a scenario where players are getting close to him and the most advanced Irish midfielder, Jeff Hendrick, was incapable of doing so.
The shot count was low with half chances for Hal Robson-Kanu, Aaron Ramsey and Allen.
Irish forays forward were so rare that any free or throw in the Welsh half resulted in the cavalry being sent forward. In truth, the key moment of the half was Allen getting caught in an unpleasant McClean and Meyler sandwich.
The groggy playmaker was unable to continue and Wales lost their rhythm as the interval approached.
Coleman was asked if he felt the Stoke player was targeted. Perhaps he had Neil Taylor in mind with his response.
"You'll have to ask the Republic of Ireland that but, if he was, they did a good job," the Wales boss replied. "But if that was the case, I've no complaints. It was as I expected, and I've no complaints about the opposition or the players - the physicality of it."
Without Allen, Wales lacked a focal point and Ramsey dropped deeper. Robbie Brady, who was selected on the right of what played like a 4-5-1, even had a shot on goal with the last action of the half.
Wales resumed with purpose and the best chance of the match to that point was created by a Chris Gunter cross that was steered goalwards by Robson-Kanu with Randolph producing a top-class stop.
It was a momentum-changer. Ireland pressed on and from that endeavour, a glorious lead goal was produced.
When an opportunity for Murphy was gathered, the ball was steered to Welsh left full-back Ben Davies who was dispossessed by Hendrick.
The Burnley player just about succeeding in keeping the ball in play on the right touchline and sent a cross into the area where a dummy from Harry Arter threw the Welsh defence off the scent and McClean was waiting to execute a superb right-footed finish - a goal to rival the team move he converted in Vienna last November.
"James just keeps going," said O'Neill. "He's been magnifient in this campaign."
Wales' dream of a first World Cup appearance since 1958 was slowly dying. Word coming through that Croatia were leading away to Ukraine meant that the option where the draw was enough was gone.
Coleman emptied his bench in search of inspiration and inevitably Ireland dropped back. Wales were beginning to rush decisions in the final third; it was a reminder of Irish panic in the dying stages against group winners Serbia a month earlier. O'Neill's charges preferred this state of play.
Where possible they sought to run down the clock. Arter was the master in this department, although he was not able to last the 90 with Glenn Whelan summoned with 15 minutes to go.
Wales had sent for the energy of Ben Woodburn and Jonathan Williams, Allen's replacement, was sprightly. But the Irish back four were seeing everything that was coming their way; Wales were finding it hard to really stretch them and frustration set in.
Duffy was living the dream, as the opponent lumped balls in his direction. That was his best-case scenario. "Fantastic," was O'Neill's accurate one-word player rating.
"In the end, we didn't look like scoring," conceded Coleman.
"We were huffing and puffing on second balls and that's not our game.
"Once you start knocking it long, the Republic back four enjoy that and they defend really well together."
For the away end, the wait was agony as minutes crawled past. But Irish heads were clear.
They have earned the adulation.