Tom Lawrence the hero as Wales sidestep Georgia landmine for first away win minus Gareth Bale since '09
No Gareth Bale, no problem. That was the message from Wales manager Chris Coleman ahead of this crucial double-header of qualifying fixtures, and his 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. Last month it was young Ben Woodburn, who inspired the side to six points against Austria and Moldova, and this time it was Lawrence. The Derby winger led the charge from the off, 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 just a point against the Republic of Ireland would guarantee second place in their qualifying group. That, Coleman hopes, will be enough to secure a play-off place next month.
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.
Without Bale to call on, Coleman resisted the urge to unleash 17-year-old Ben Woodburn from the start. Midfielder Andy King was instead pushed out to the right in an unfamiliar role, while Aaron Ramsey 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’s first touch touch was excellent, but he dragged his shot wide.
Against an assured Georgia midfield, Wales struggled for 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.
Still, there were half-chances forged for King and Vokes before the break, although both were spurned. Lawrence then popped up once more, curling just over after finding space on the edge of the box.
For all the Welsh control, which Coleman would have expected against a limited Georgian side, there was still a worrying air of fragility at the back. Ashley Williams was nearly caught out by a long pass from deep, while Georgian striker Giorgi Kvilitaia headed wide when he should have hit the target, at least.
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 bury a rasping strike in the corner.
He nearly repeated the trick a minute later, but could only curl wide after slaloming his way through a couple of rash challenges.
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 and Davies went close, and then Ramsey could not quite connect with a shot from the edge of the box.
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.