Wales seal place at 2022 World Cup as playoff final win ends Ukraine hopes

This was never going to be an occasion short of lasting images. Perhaps the most memorable from a night Wales will always treasure was the sight of Gareth Bale singing along to Yma o Hyd as the entire squad, some wearing tricolour bucket hats that are a nod to their last appearance at a World Cup in 1958, all moonlighting as Dafydd Iwan’s backing choir, swayed to the soundtrack of their journey to Qatar. Tony Roberts, the goalkeeping coach who rushed to Wayne Hennessey at the final whistle following his heroic performance and led the team on an impromptu conga down the tunnel, played the role of conductor. After a glossary of painful near-misses, Wales will again play on the world stage after edging out Ukraine in a nail-biting and fraught playoff final.

From Bale being deep in conversation with Oleksandr Zinchenko seconds after the final whistle to all four sides of this stadium applauding Ukraine as they trudged off the pitch, emotions were, understandably, in overdrive. Then there was Aaron Ramsey pulling his shirt over his head, fresh from clutching his son, wearing a replica No 10 shirt, in his arms. Connor Roberts collapsed to the floor and repeatedly punched the air in a state of disbelief. Daniel James piggy-backed a member of backroom staff. Bale blew kisses towards his family, Robert Page beat his chest.

Perhaps the moment reality struck was when Wales’ players suddenly surged from the halfway line to slide on their torsos en masse before the Canton Stand, home to the “Red Wall”, though Ben Davies and Jonny Williams, busy celebrating at the opposite end of the stadium, had some ground to make up. That came after Ukraine’s players went over to a corner where their 1,700 fans were housed. A communal thunder clap of sorts followed and thousands of home supporters joined in what was another moving moment. Ukraine’s players displayed a flag scribbled with handwritten messages from soldiers in their dressing room. The Football Association of Wales, who think qualification is worth around £10m, also gave 100 tickets to Ukrainian refugees.

For Page, sticking with Hennessey was a big call but ultimately an inspired one. The 35-year-old Burnley goalkeeper, who celebrated his 100th cap for his country in March, made a series of improbable saves, some more mind-bending than others, the pick of the bunch surely the sprawling left-hand stop to deny the substitute Artem Dovbyk heading in Vitalii Mykolenko’s cross late on. Ben Davies was outstanding in defence and there was no way Neco Williams was going to be on the losing side, throwing his body on the line into five minutes of second-half stoppage time to prevent Andriy Yarmolenko from finding an equaliser. It seemed cruel that Yarmolenko’s first-half own goal, from a devilish Bale free-kick, would prove the difference. Ukraine must somehow regroup, while Wales can start preparing for England, Iran and USA in Group B.

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