Defiant last stand needed from Ireland in Cardiff cauldron

Welsh fans see game as a kind of coronation for a golden generation of footballers

A routine assignment for Martin O’Neill’s Ireland then; march into the partisan frenzy of Cardiff City Stadium, conjure up a goal, withstand an inevitable onslaught, shatter Wales’ incredible football renaissance and then move on to the playoffs.

As ever with Irish football teams and qualification, tonight’s finale promises to be nerve-wracking. Martin O’Neill is temperamentally well-equipped for these one-off raids and Scotland’s 2-2 draw away to Slovenia yesterday at least meant that the calculators could be set aside.

More sadness for Gordon Strachan’s team has left the other Celtic nations to duke it out here. A score draw would almost certainly secure Wales a playoff. Win in Cardiff and Ireland will get their playoff; either team could even top group D when the final whistles sound across Europe in a fanciful scenario that would see Serbia somehow slip up at home against Georgia.

“It is very strange,” O’Neill said carefully of the multi-layered possibilities. “But we can’t consider other things.”

The local interpretation of this match is that it will confirm Wales' status as the up-and-coming nation of the international scene. For Wales and Chris Coleman, tonight has been set up as a kind of coronation for a generation of footballers who have breathed fire through the Welsh sense of pride and national identity.

Once, that was the preserve of the country’s dashing rugby teams. Now, on the back of last summer’s cavalier dash to the semi-finals of the European championships, this Wales team has a chance to join the John Charles’s 1958 side by making it to a World Cup.

Coleman’s attitude has been to lionise the achievements of his team while drawing a line under both their recent successes and the historical disappointments suffered by Welsh football teams.

“Nineteen-fifty-eight is nothing to do with this squad. You can look back and say we have never done this or that but not these players. They haven’t been involved in squads for the last 50 or 60 years. What they can do is the best they can for the nation. They are doing fantastically well. We don’t really talk about anything other than what we need to be doing right now.

“It is a golden era. They were labelled as a golden bunch before they qualified and I fought against that because they hadn’t earned it. They have made the difference and gone up a step further than anyone who came before them. But that is in the past and it won’t help us tomorrow night. It is only ourselves.”

The absence of Gareth Bale, their ponytailed superstar, deepens the burden of expectation. It was Bale who scored to dig out results in the 1-1 draws at home to Georgia and Serbia. After their 4-0 dismantling of Moldova in the opening game in September 2016, Wales have been steady rather than eye-catching but have elbowed their way into contention after Friday night's tough-minded 1-0 win over in Georgia, a victory earned without Bale as guiding light.

Surging belief

"We have no divine right to be running away with a group," said their long-serving defender Chris Gunter.

“It is something Wales teams have never done and I think it would be disrespectful to the other teams to say we should. If you look across the board there are still a lot of teams fighting. I am sure the feeling with people in work tomorrow is that they can’t wait to come down to the stadium.”

Gunter was one of those who played in the tepid 3-0 defeat against Ireland in the Nations Cup six years ago.

“A lot has changed since then. If you could sum up how the nation feels about the team now compared to then, it would be night and day.”

That surging belief leaves Ireland in a stark place. O’Neill is twitchy on the eve of run-of-the-mill international matches so when he made an appearance before the Republic’s Sunday evening run-out in the stadium, his mind was clearly elsewhere.

Even as he spoke, Leigh Griffiths had put Scotland 1-0 up against Slovenia. Had that proved a final result, then Ireland's fate would have been dependent on events elsewhere regardless of what they did in Cardiff.

Instead, O’Neill drew on the memory or the Republic’s full-hearted performance against Italy in Lille in a must win-game in the European Championships last summer.

The key difference is that match was played in an indifferent city soaked with summer rain against an Italian side who needed nothing from the game. Tonight, the compact football stadium on the edge of Cardiff will be the furnace around which the entire country will gather.

In Lille, Ireland left it dangerously late, snatching a famous win when Robbie Brady came streaking onto Wes Hoolahan's crafted ball to head home a brilliant goal. But in the past few games, Ireland have had a marked difficulty in concocting and converting similar chances and proved unable to score against both Wales and Serbia in Dublin when both visiting teams were reduced to ten men.

“Well, first of all I don’t think we are the only side that maybe didn’t score 11 versus 10 with 20 minutes to go or whatever the Serbian player went off,” O’Neill contended.

“Personally speaking, I wish he had stayed on and allowed Murphy through on goal because I think he would have scored. So yeah, I think you have to utilise that extra player if you can and get a little bit of width.

“Wales lost a player and I thought we were very strong. Aiden McGeady was causing a lot of trouble on the left but we just couldn’t get that elusive goal. So if the game is to be decided in the last third, I think it is a case of throwing absolutely everything at it.”

The Irish manager was predictably vague about his possible first XI: Brady and James McClean will return but among his key decisions will be whether to stick with Daryl Murphy after his two-goal deliverance and how to use the mercurial gifts of Wes Hoolahan, who was, as ever, the key-turner against Moldova.

In fact, the best Ireland can probably hope for is a deadlocked score midway through the second half, nerves shot across the valleys, Bale forlorn and helpless in the stands and Hoolahan slinking into the mix to produce the moment of guile and stealth needed to separate these teams.

It will take a remarkable last stand from the team for the Irish fans to end up serenading St Mary Street after midnight. But by then, it’s unlikely that anyone in the city will have any voice left.