Wales keep World Cup destiny in their own hands
Ireland will need to win in Cardiff to have any chance of a play-off
Georgia 0 Wales 1
It is not quite a case of all roads point to Russia for Wales, but the path to the World Cup finals tournament next summer has certainly become a little clearer.
A third successive qualification victory, courtesy of Tom Lawrence’s first goal for his country, means that another win against the Republic of Ireland in Cardiff on Monday night will all but guarantee a place in the World Cup play-offs next month.
That will be easier said than done, yet all that matters for now is that Chris Coleman and his players have emerged from another awkward fixture with three points and proved in the process that they are capable of winning matches without Gareth Bale.
This is the first time Wales have managed to do that in four years, which says much about the Real Madrid forward’s influence on a team that seems to have found momentum in this qualification campaign at just the right time.
What a moment it was for Lawrence, who marked his ninth Wales cap with a crucial goal and a highly impressive individual performance. The Derby man even made a vital intervention at the other end, producing a brave far-post header in the closing minutes as Georgia, desperately pressing for an equaliser, laid siege to the Wales goal.
The visitors lived dangerously on a few occasions late on, as Wayne Hennessey made an important save to deny Giorgi Merebashvili as their grit and resilience shone through.
Coleman had anticipated this would be a difficult assignment. Georgia held the Republic of Ireland to a 1-1 draw here last month and the Wales manager was honest enough to admit that his players were fortunate to come away with a point when the two teams met in Cardiff in October last year. Throw in the fact that Bale was watching this match on television, leaving his hopes of playing in a World Cup in the hands of others, and it was clear that Wales were not going to have everything their own way in Tbilisi.
Neat and tidy in possession, Georgia had plenty of the ball, albeit without really threatening until eight minutes before half-time, when Giorgi Kvilitaia squandered an excellent opportunity to put the home team ahead. Otar Kakabadze crossed from the right and Kvilitaia, unmarked in the Wales penalty area, headed the ball into the ground and just beyond Hennessey’s far post. It was a poor miss and a welcome reprieve for Wales, who had carried the greater threat up until that point and not really been prised open defensively.
Ramsey, playing just behind Sam Vokes in what was essentially a 4-4-1-1 formation, had a decent chance to give Wales the lead in the fourth minute. Lawrence, drifting in from the left, was the architect, rolling a neat pass into the inside right channel, where Ramsey was breaking behind the Georgia defence. From the edge of the area, the Arsenal midfielder snatched a little at a low left-footed shot that flashed wide.
With Allen using the ball intelligently in central midfield, Wales continued to probe and create opportunities. The Stoke midfielder was at the centre of a flowing move that saw him combine well with Vokes and Joe Ledley, who was recalled to the Wales starting XI, and ended with Andy King seeing his shot beaten away. Time seemed to stand still as the ball hung in the air before King swung his right boot, with the Leicester midfielder not quite connecting as he would have hoped. His shot was on target but lacked power and Giorgi Loria, the Georgia goalkeeper, stuck out his right hand to paw the ball to safety.
Another Wales opening arrived on the half-hour. Hugging the right touchline, King did well to win a header and flick on Ashley Williams’s raking diagonal pass. Ramsey, making another of those darting runs, escaped on the right flank and created enough space to swing in a low centre towards Vokes, who got away from his marker but steered a low shot across goal and past the far upright.
In that sense Wales were entitled to think that the goal would come if they remained patient, and so it proved four minutes into the second half.
Lawrence picked up the ball around 30 yards from goal, evaded a challenge and drilled a low, powerful shot from just outside the penalty area that Loria got a hand to but was unable to prevent from finding the far corner of the net. The Wales bench exploded with joy and 2,000 supporters who had made the long trip to the Georgian capital raucously celebrated a precious breakthrough.
Georgia, however, are not the sort of team to go quietly and they responded to the goal by cranking up the pressure as Wales lost control of the game and retreated deeper in its final stages.
Opportunities opened up for Wales to hit Georgia on the counter-attack, but neither Ben Davies nor Ramsey could make the most of promising breakaways. Then came that Hennessey save to thwart Merebashvili, who tried to beat the Wales keeper at his near post.