Wales' World Cup hopes dented by Serbia

Gareth Bale

Wales’ hopes of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup were dealt a severe blow as Aleksandar Mitrovic’s late equaliser for Serbia denied them victory in Cardiff.

Despite a strong start from the visitors, Gareth Bale fired Wales ahead after the tireless Hal Robson-Kanu forced Serbia’s Matija Nastasic into a mistake.

An occasionally scrappy but absorbing encounter featured chances at both ends and, just moments after Bale hit the post, Mitrovic headed in to stun the Cardiff City Stadium into silence.

With the Republic of Ireland’s win in Austria taking them top of Group D, Serbia and Wales stay second and third – two and four points behind Martin O’Neill’s men respectively.

Having drawn their previous two games, it was imperative Wales did not lose more ground on their rivals in a tantalisingly tight group.

And although the draw means Chris Coleman’s men remain unbeaten, the four-point gap between them and the Republic of Ireland is a significant one with only one team able to qualify automatically from the group.

It also sets up a mouthwatering match between the two sides in Dublin on 24 March.

Relive Wales’ draw against Serbia

Wales will keep fighting, says Bale

Coleman’s bold selection

Group D

The pressure on Wales was increased before kick-off by the Republic’s win in Austria, which momentarily moved Martin O’Neill’s side three points clear at the top of Group D.

Coleman boldly switched from his favoured 5-3-2 formation to a more attacking 4-4-2, and the changes from October’s unexpected home draw against minnows Georgia included returns for influential midfielders Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen, as well as forward and Euro 2016 hero Robson-Kanu.

Although a more narrow Wales side struggled as they were stretched by Serbia’s width, Robson-Kanu’s signature work ethic proved invaluable as he hustled Nastasic out of possession and fed Bale, whose low drive flew past Vladimir Stojkovic.

Having featured only fleetingly for West Brom this season, Robson-Kanu’s industrious running took its toll as he had to be replaced during the second half – his effort embodying a gruelling display from Wales. Midfielder Joe Ledley’s exhaustion rendered him motionless on the ground before his late substitution.

Wales could have doubled their lead through Real Madrid man Bale, whose low, right-footed shot came back off the post following Ramsey’s pass.

And the miss was to prove costly, as Newcastle striker Mitrovic found space between tiring defenders just a minute later to glance his header home and spark wild celebrations in the Serbian dugout.

Serbia torment Wales again

Serbia celebrate

Serbia had won both their previous meetings with Wales by an aggregate score of 9-1, including a humiliating 6-1 thrashing for Coleman’s men in Novi Sad in 2012.

While Wales had enjoyed unprecedented success in subsequent years, Serbia found themselves in the international wilderness as they failed to qualify for a major tournament.

However, they were unbeaten in this campaign and started this match in confident mood, captain Branislav Ivanovic denied an early goal as his header was cleared off the line.

Initially shaken by Bale’s opener, Slavoljub Muslin’s side were a threat throughout the game and sensed a point might be in the offing as Wales tired – and eventually pounced with Mitrovic’s header after 85 minutes.

Serbia’s frenzied celebrations spoke of their delight at claiming a point, maintaining their unbeaten record and simultaneously damaging Welsh hopes of finishing top of the group.

Analysis

Gareth Bale's late shot beat Serbia keeper Vladimir Stojkovic but came back off the post

Former Wales striker John Hartson on BBC Radio 5 live:

“Wales could have had lady luck on their side, it could have been different. Serbia stayed in it and it was wonderful header from Aleksandar Mitrovic to level.

“They put everything in but they are only on six points. We are still in there fighting but it is disappointing not to see games out.

“We led against Georgia, took the lead twice against Austria and led for 55 minutes against Serbia.

“It has all been Wales’ wrongdoings. The expectation level has risen but the players have not done too much wrong. They have been committed and seen some really good performances.

“Defensively, with a few minutes to go, Neil Taylor fails to stop the cross coming in. If he gets a yard closer and puts in that little bit more, it could be a clean sheet. Little things like that can make such a huge difference.”

Man of the match – Joe Ledley (Wales)

Joe Ledley

What they said:

Wales forward Gareth Bale: “We are so disappointed at the moment, we played great in the first half but then we faded. We dug in. It’s one of those things, you go so close at one end and then they go up and score.

“We believe we can still do it, we just need to keep working hard. At home we were confident, we were 1-0 up in the 85th minute, it’s two points lost.”

Wales midfielder Joe Ledley: “You want to take the three points, we fought well today but credit to Serbia. We are still undefeated, let’s keep positive.

“Gareth Bale had just hit the post, if that goes in it’s over. We are proud of our performance, it’s Ireland away next and that’s a must-win.”

Serbia captain and Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic: “It’s a very important goal for us, we gave a lot of energy and we can be more than happy with a point.

“Wales are very difficult to play, very strong on the counter attack and they scored an early goal. We have to look forward and think about the next game.”

What next?

The World Cup qualifiers resume in 2017 and Wales travel to face group leaders Republic of Ireland on Friday, 24 March (kick-off 19:45 GMT).

The stats you need to know:

  • Wales have now drawn their past three internationals, equalling their longest winless run under Chris Coleman in competitive action (three games in September 2013).
  • Before the current run of three consecutive draws, Wales had drawn just three of their previous 19 internationals.
  • Gareth Bale has had a hand in 15 goals in his past 14 appearances for Wales on home soil (11 goals, four assists).
  • Bale has now been directly involved in five of Wales’ seven goals in 2018 World Cup qualifying (four goals, one assist), scoring their only goal in both the last two games.
  • Wales scored with their first shot on target in the 30th minute, which was one of only two in the game for the hosts.

Line-ups

Wales

  • 1Hennessey
  • 2Gunter
  • 5Chester
  • 6WilliamsBooked at 90mins
  • 3Taylor
  • 7AllenBooked at 54mins
  • 16LedleyBooked at 69mins