Wales spoil Ukraine dreams to reach first World Cup in 64 years

Gareth Bale inspires the Welsh to first finals since 1958 in the same group as England

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Wales ended their 64-year wait for a place in the World Cup finals as they beat Ukraine 1-0 on Sunday to end the conflict-torn nation's hopes of reaching Qatar.

Gareth Bale, so often Wales’ talisman, again produced the decisive moment with his 34th-minute free-kick headed into his own net by Andriy Yarmolenko.

But Wales goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey took the man-of-the-match honours with an outstanding display that kept the gifted Ukrainians at bay.

Coach Rob Page saluted his players and the fans after seeing them clinch a place at the World Cup finals for the first time since 1958.

“It’s unbelievable. I’m so proud of these boys," he said. "They thoroughly deserved that. The one thing they needed was a World Cup and they’ve got it.

“The fans were incredible. They’re the best supporters in world football, I’m telling you. They helped us from the first minute and deserve all the credit."

More than six decades after reaching their one and only World Cup in Sweden in 1958, Wales are back at football’s global table.

And, just like at Euro 2016 in France, Wales will find themselves in the same group as England, with Iran and the United States for company.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, and the conflict that has ensued, made Ukraine the choice of neutrals.

But, as Bale said before kick-off, Wales could not show compassion on the field and that proved to be the case when nerves were stretched to the limit.

Bale, despite being woefully short of game-time as his Real Madrid career drew to an inauspicious close, had dragged Wales over the semi-final line against Austria with a brilliant brace.

He had played just 30 minutes of football since that Austria win on March 24, but he led out a side showing one change from that game.

The fit-again Kieffer Moore replaced Harry Wilson to pose an aerial threat to Ukraine’s defenders, who had an easy ride against Scotland on Wednesday.

Ukraine had spent huge energy on an emotional night at Hampden, their first competitive match since November.

Manager Oleksandr Petrakov said a huge Ukrainian flag sent by soldiers from the battlefield, and signed by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, had been hung in the visitors’ dressing room.

Petrakov kept faith with the side that had beaten Scotland, and Ukraine’s support included 100 refugees who had been given free tickets by the Football Association of Wales.

Ukraine had the ball in the net after two minutes, but Oleksandr Zinchenko had taken the free-kick too quickly for the taste of Spanish referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz.

Hennessey saved the second attempt from Ruslan Malinovskyi, and the goalkeeper was the busiest man on the pitch as Ukraine almost opened up Wales at will.

The Burnley goalkeeper kept out efforts from Viktor Tsygankov and Roman Yaremchuk, and had to use every bit of his 6ft 6in frame to push another deflected effort to safety.

Zinchenko and Tsygankov forced further stops from Hennessey, and it looked a matter of time before Ukraine would score the goal their supremacy deserved.

But Wales, whose best attempt saw Neco Williams drag wide from just outside the box, took the lead after Daniel James was fouled 25 yards out.

Bale lined up the free-kick and the intervening head of Yarmolenko saw the ball flash past Georgiy Bushchan in the visitors’ goal.

Ukraine responded as Zinchenko’s powerful shot was tipped around a post, and Wales were relieved to escape a VAR review when Yarmolenko was caught by Allen.

Hennessey was afforded a quieter start to the second half, but produced a wonderful stop to deny Tsygankov with his legs before Yaremchuk stabbed the rebound wide.

And Wales were indebted to Hennessey again when he somehow clawed away Artem Dovbyk’s header.

Updated: June 05, 2022, 6:49 PM