Poland, barring a disaster of
1939 proportions seem to have secured their place in Japan &
For Wales, only a win against the Ukraine in Cardiiff would really be sufficient. Another draw on the weekend left Wales needing three points desperately in order to keep in contention for second place in the group.
On paper against a talented Ukrainian side, a draw would be an excellent result, and most of the fans who made their way to the stadium must have feared a bubble bursting mauling was on the cards from Rebrov, Shevchenko & company.
As usual for a footballing occasion of this importance, The centre of Cardiff was heaving with fans, mainly Welsh of course, but a sizable number of Ukrainians bedecked in their national colours could be seen mixing & boozing freely - probably anticipating a valuable win.
Our 'Ukrainian Correspondent' Elena had informed us that most of her compatriots were not viewing this game as much of a challenge, an attitude which to be quite honest many of us shared - after all, none of us felt Wales really had much of a chance.
Though playing with far more spirit and organisation under Mark Hughes, Wales still lack the quality to really test the world's best & the early minutes of the match seemed to bear this out.
Right from the kick off the Ukrainians
superior technique had Wales constantly on the back foot.
Especially impressive was Shevchenko, who more than lived up to his pre match reputation with some inspired moments of skill - though happily for Wales he was fairly wasteful in front of goal.
Most of the attacks were halted, though generally, Welsh clearances went straight back to the opposition & the whole heart stopping process would begin again.
After 12 minutes, Wales scored through John Hartson, who made it three goals in two games.
Was the miracle going to happen?, were Wales going to pull off a famous victory? or would they concede an equaliser immediately?.
As one spectator pointed out after the celebrations died down 'The rest of the match is going to be torture'.
Probably mindful of a quick equaliser,
Wales played tight & deep, allowing the Ukrainians the bulk
of possession, but doing precious little offensively themselves.
In this period the Ukrainians should have won the game, missing a succession of chances which must have made pretty unpleasant viewing for Elena and her friends watching the game on T.V back in the Ukraine.
By half time there were signs that the Ukrainians were losing a little heart out on the pitch as their passing began to lose its incisive quality - but maybe this was due to fatigue caused by having too much of the ball ( a cunning Hughes plan perhaps?).
Discussions during the half time break included the poor quality of the Ukrainian finishing, why the Welsh hadn't been more aggressive after the goal and how one chap in front of us had managed to survive the half without suffering a seizure, as time after time he had launched into artery bursting rages against the Belgian referee.
Later the talk hesitantly turned
to the possibility of a Welsh win.
Unfortunately, it only took a few minutes after the restart. for the Ukrainians to level the score, when finally Shevchenko prodded the ball into the Welsh net.
In terms of World Cup qualification, this was a disaster, but it spurred Wales onto the offensive, and as a spectacle the second half was far more exciting.
Though the Ukrainians were still producing more proficient football, the higher tempo definitely suited the more hit & miss nature of the Welsh play.
The replacement of the exhausted John Hartson with Dean Saunders was greeted ambivalently by the crowd, but he did, with Giggs largely ineffective, add greater impetus to the attack with Wales going close several times, including an agonising miss by Bellamy in the final seconds.
Wales had given everything on
the night , and happily there was no-one in the side who made
a fatal error,
like the unfortunate Andy Legg in Armenia.
Perhaps if they had been a little bolder during the first half considering the 'win or nothing' nature of the game the outcome could have been different.
Two disappointed sets of supporters streamed out of the Millennium Stadium & into the bars and clubs. Welshmen & Ukrainians, who Thatcher would have had shooting each other across a barren European wasteland drank themselves silly and spoke to each other in the international language of 'pissed up'.
The spectacle itself had been
entertaining - but wins on the same night for Poland and Belarus
meant qualification for 2002 would be awkward for the Ukraine
and almost impossible for Wales.