Welsh dreams fade as Serbs grab point in a game of inches
Wales 1 Serbia 1
If this golden generation of Wales players do fail to end what is already a 58-year wait to play in a World Cup Finals, a frantic 53-second period in Cardiff may very well go down as the pivotal moment.
Having led for almost an hour following Gareth Bale's wonderful first-half strike, an added shine was seemingly being applied when Aaron Ramsey released Bale in the 85th minute and he shot past Serbia goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic.
The ball, however, cannoned off an upright, giving Serbia a last chance to counter-attack and Newcastle United striker Aleksandar Mitrovic rose superbly to guide his header back across Wayne Hennessey.
The ball again hit a post and, as time seemed almost to move in slow motion, bounced back into Hennessey and settled in an empty net.
A potential 2-0 win had suddenly become a 1-1 draw and, for the third straight qualifying game, Wales had failed to see out a match from a winning position.
It leaves Ireland perfectly placed at the summit of Group D and, from potentially being able to go top with a victory in Dublin next March, Wales are now four points adrift in third.
Bale described it as "two points dropped" and, although manager Chris Coleman described his players as "devastated", there was a mixture of defiance and confidence about the wider group position.
"We were an inch away from going 2-0 and winning the game. That's football. It would be a silly man to criticise our lads," said Coleman.
"The players did everything I asked of them tactically and we will be stronger and harder for this.
"There will be twists and turns in the next six games. We play Ireland home and away and, for us, the good thing is that we can affect our destiny. We are well capable of going to Dublin and getting a result."
Despite the outcome, Coleman was vindicated in his bold decision to change formation and move away from the usual three-man defence amid the unavailability of Ben Davies.
With four at the back and Hal Robson-Kanu joining Sam Vokes up front, Bale and Ramsey were still given full freedom to interchange in behind the two strikers, while Joe Ledley and Joe Allen were in their usual position in front of the defence.
Coleman was adamant that the tactical tweak was more about combating Serbia, but it was certainly an offensive change that contributed to an open game.
Bale gave an early hint of his ability to create from almost any position when he collected the ball inside the Serbia half and, with a sudden turn, carved out space from which he shot wide.
Filip Kostic was a persistent threat for Serbia with his direct running into the penalty area and, after forcing James Chester into a potentially goal-saving challenge, Branislav Ivanovic rose from the subsequent corner and had his header cleared off the line by Neil Taylor.
A combination of Welsh industry and artistry was then rewarded. Robson-Kanu had chased down a seemingly lost cause to force a mistake from Matija Nastasic before glancing up and finding Bale, who, quite brilliantly, cushioned the ball across his body before unleashing a powerful low shot.
It was actually struck relatively close to Stojkovic, but the speed with which Bale had shot meant that the goalkeeper was unable to get down quickly enough.
It was suddenly soon almost 2-0, with Bale then whipping in a cross that Robson-Kanu headed narrowly wide.
Bale was booked for complaining to referee Alberto Mallenco about the award of a foul against Taylor, although blood was gushing from Dusan Tadic's nose and he may now require an operation.
The importance of the match for both teams was reflected in some of the tackling that was flying in. Wales have become battle-hardened since losing 6-1 to Serbia four years ago and showed a relish to match some of the strong challenges on Bale and Ramsey.
Ledley and Allen were both booked, while captain Ashley Williams, at centre-back, made a series of important headed clearances.
Serbia were forced to take risks as they went in search of an equaliser and they finally got their reward when Antonio Rukavina's cross was met by Mitrovic, who, having sprinted in front of Chester, glanced his header back across the Wales goal.
With Bale having struck the woodwork just seconds earlier, it was an especially cruel blow and the potential enormity of another two dropped points for Wales was reflected in the ecstatic Serbian celebrations. © Daily Telegraph, London.