Wales kept up their unbeaten start to their Euro 2016 Qualifying campaign with a 2-1 win over Cyprus, at the Cardiff City Stadium, last night.
In a tense affair, goals from early substitute David Cotterill and Reading winger Hal Robson-Kanu were enough to see off an uninspired Cyprus side, despite the visitors pulling a goal back through midfielder Vincent Laban.
On 13 minutes, Cotterill’s cross deserted both the Cypriot defence as well as goalkeeper Tasos Kissas and put the home side in front in fortuitous circumstances. There was nothing fortuitous about Wales’ second goal though, as a sleek passing move was coolly finished by Robson-Kanu, doubling their lead.
Despite creating very little, Cyprus managed to grab themselves a way back into the game as Laban’s in-swinging free-kick deceived Welsh goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, whose poor punch failed to connect with the ball, ensuring a nail-biting remainder of the game for Chris Coleman’s side.
Despite switching to a 4-4-2 formation for the game, Coleman was forced to reorganise his team after striker Simon Church dislocated his shoulder after just 48 seconds in what seemed a relatively innocuous challenge. Church was replaced by Cotterill who adopted debutant George Williams’ role on the left side of midfield, with Williams pushing into Church’s position.
Four minutes into the game, Marios Nikolaou received the first booking of the game after a scything tackle on Welsh superstar Gareth Bale; the Real Madrid man’s resulting free-kick, swerving and dipping, couldn’t be handled by stand-in ‘keeper Kissas at the first time of asking.
After a manic opening 10 minutes, the game seemed to have settled as George Williams’ direct run forced a corner from the Cyprus defence. It was from that corner that, having been half-cleared then headed wide by Joe Ledley, Cotterill delivered the first goal of the night. His whipping cross beat everyone and, along with Robson-Kanu’s attempt to get a flick with his head, the ball nestled into the net.
Wales then doubled their advantage 10 minutes later after a neat passage of play. James Chester, who plays for Hull City, won a header from a long-ball, and after an exchange of passes with Leicester City’s Andy King, the latter passed to Bale in the centre circle. The world’s most expensive player then majestically flicked the ball with the inside of his heel, splitting the Cypriot defence and setting up Robson-Kanu to race clear and finish calmly, slotting the ball past Kissas.
Wales then almost made it three as Chris Gunter’s low cross was spilt by the Cyprus goalkeeper, who reacted well to clutch the ball away from a poised Andy King. With 10 minutes to go until the interval, David Cotterill’s strong tackle, with studs showing in the left-back area of the Welsh defensive third, was penalised with a yellow card. From the resulting free-kick, Laban curled the ball in and Wayne Hennessey failed to punch clear. The Crystal Palace goalkeeper appeared to be slightly impeded by Angelis Angeli, who had replaced the injured Dossa Junior a few minutes prior.
Bale again went close with a free-kick after George Williams pounced on a loose pass by the Cyprus left-back, Marios Antoniades, and attacked Kissas’ goal, before being taken out by two Cyprus defenders, including Angeli who was booked for his troubles. After his trademark run up and strike, Bale’s free-kick deflected off the wall, allowing Kissas to tip the ball onto the crossbar and Ledley’s headed rebound was headed off the line thanks to some fantastic defensive play.
In added time at the end of the half, a defence-splitting through ball after a run from Robson-Kanu was met by Cotterill, who was thwarted by the goalkeeper; the ball fell to Bale, his fizzing strike was deflected fractionally over the crossbar.
The second half started in the worst possible way for Wales, though, as Leicester midfielder, playing his 28th game for his country, received a red card for a mistimed, crunching tackle high on the ankle of Cyprus captain, Constantinos Makridis, who escaped unhurt. It was far from malicious from the long-serving Foxes midfielder but he realised his mistake immediately and accepted his punishment.
It meant that a nervy second half was guaranteed for the Welsh supporters, who were very quiet for the majority of the second half. The game turned very cagey after the red card, with multiple fouls, and chances were limited. Cyprus forward Dimitris Christofi fired wide before Bale’s clever effort from the acutest of angles rolled along the goal-line, either side of substitutes for both sides. Cyprus manager Pambos Christodoulou replaced the cautioned Nikolaou with Nektarios Alexandrou and his Welsh opposite number sent on David Edwards to solidify the midfield, bringing off impressive debutant George Williams, with Wales reshuffling once more to a 4-4-1 with Bale the focal point of attack.
“The lads wanted it tonight, the team spirit is excellent and we’ll go to Belgium full of confidence”
More fouls and more yellow cards followed, as well as a speculative effort from Gareth Bale; his 40-yard free-kick wildly fired high and wide. Makridis made a succession of fouls on numerous Welsh players, who were infuriated that the referee didn’t give him his marching orders.
Cyprus’ big chance came on 83 minutes, though, as a fine move down the right resulting in the ball being stood up for George Efrem, but he couldn’t quite stretch high enough to get ideal contact and saw his header float over the crossbar. Jake Taylor, 20, of Reading, then made his debut, replacing his impressive team-mate Hal Robson-Kanu for the final six minutes, before Gareth Bale was crumbled just outside the area after masterful control and dribbling.
Bale once again went close in the 88th minute after a scintillating passage of play where the skilful winger tricked his way past the Cyprus defence but was unable to get his shot away. Cotterill and Bale then wasted a large proportion of the four minute of injury time by keeping the ball in the corner and playing it off the Cyprus defenders when they pressured.
German referee Manuel Grafe then blew his whistle for full-time and a roar of emotion, relief and joy burst from the stands, pitch and technical area as Wales had claimed all three points, remaining unbeaten and top of Group B, three matches along the road to France.
Bale, who was clearly delighted with the victory, said, “We had a great start but made a mistake at the set-piece. The lads wanted it tonight and the team spirit is excellent.” He added, “the luck went against us tonight but we covered every blade of grass. It’s great to be top and we’ll go to Belgium full of confidence.”
Meanwhile, Wales manager Chris Coleman, who wants an average of 1.75 points per game, stated that the he felt his side were cruising but the goal conceded was sloppy. He gave credit to the players, in particular Cotterill and Robson-Kanu. He also said, “the crowd were nervy but they were brilliant and pushed us over the line.”