As the home support launched into another a cappella chorus of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau a few minutes before the final whistle, it was impossible not to fast-forward to March, when this ground will host a World Cup play-off, at which point Wales will be two, relatively sizeable, steps from Qatar 2022.
They earned a draw against group winners Belgium after Kieffer Moore cancelled out Kevin De Bruyne’s smarting first-half strike to ensure they will be seeds for the draw next Friday in Zurich.
There was a collective giant gasp of relief when the goalkeeper Danny Ward gobbled up a cross six minutes into second-half stoppage time while, slightly earlier, it seemed Wales were about to enter dreamland.
With seven minutes to play, Neco Williams’s swerving shot was heading for the top corner when the Belgium goalkeeper Koen Casteels sprawled to his left and produced a two-handed save.
At full time Wales players and staff gathered on the pitch in a giant team huddle and Robert Page, the interim manager, made his pride known.
“I was a blubbering wreck,” he said. “It was an emotional time. I was just telling the players how proud I am. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. To be part of that makes me truly proud to lead them. I think I was emotional because of the pressure that has been on. It is a great achievement but we still have a lot of work to do and the full focus will be on the play-offs.”
The target was to secure at least a point, whether done beautifully or ugly, to in turn secure home advantage for the semi-final play-off.
Wales have lost only one of their past 19 home qualifiers and in the build-up to the game Aaron Ramsey, handed the captain’s armband in the absence of Gareth Bale, spoke fondly of Wales’s brilliant win under the lights against Belgium here in 2015, when victory paved the way to Euro 2016, their first major tournament in 58 years. If they win their play-off, they will be at a third in seven years and a first World Cup since Sweden in 1958.
“There are some big, big teams still in it, so it was so important to get a home tie,” Ramsey said. “Hopefully that’ll give us an extra edge in the play-offs.”
Page said omitting Bale, who won his 100th cap last Saturday againast Belarus, was “the most sensible thing” to do.
Roberto Martínez, the former Swansea manager who completed his coaching qualifications at the Football Association of Wales, asked a much-changed side – Bale’s Real Madrid teammates Thibaut Courtois and Eden Hazard were among those pardoned from travelling to south Wales – to prove why they are ranked No 1 in the world. De Bruyne was quick to show his class, ushering a wonderful first-time finish into the corner before Wales hit back.
Daniel James sent in a looping cross from the left at the third attempt and Belgium showed they are not flawless, after all. Axel Witsel swung a leg at the ball and then Arthur Theate swiped at thin air, allowing Moore to turn and swivel before powering in from close range.
“It’s fair to say when Wales are at home, they’ve got an extra threat,” Martínez, the former Everton and Wigan manager, said. “It makes a big difference for Wales now to go into the play-offs and be able to play at home. I would say without the crowd that maybe we don’t concede that goal.”
Dedryck Boyata had a chance to restore Belgium’s lead before the interval but headed wide and, four minutes before half-time, Thorgan Hazard cracked a stunning volley against the woodwork from another De Bruyne corner. Hazard, lingering on the edge of the box, opened up his right foot and smacked a clean effort at goal but it cannoned off the upright. When Martínez made a triple substitution approaching the hour mark, it was reflective of the way Wales had grown into the game and the rhythm they had built.
Connor Roberts skewed a shot harmlessly wide after James scurried down the left and moments later Joe Morrell, who picked up a booking that means he will be suspended for their play-off, drove over. Those chances helped rev up a sell-out home crowd. Moore then forced Boyata and Theate into last-ditch blocks. Williams almost provided a spectacular climax amid a frenzied atmosphere but, regardless, Wales got the job done.
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