Wales have beaten Ukraine 1-0 in a packed Cardiff City Stadium to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.
“Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order” read the now famous flag that Gareth Bale so happily posed with. Well, as Wales qualify for their first World Cup for 64 years the flag would now read “Hennessey. Davies. Bale. In that order.”
It was always going to take something special for Wales to beat Ukraine and qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Ukraine are a genuinely good side in their own right and are currently playing with the entire goodwill of the world behind them due to the nation suffering invasion and occupation at the hands of Russia.
They went to Hampden Park, ate up the manic atmosphere there and demolished Scotland. However, there would be no demolition in Cardiff, though not for want of trying from the Eastern European nation.
Ukraine battered the Welsh goal from start to finish, forcing their hosts onto the back foot. They tried to do to them what they did to Scotland, but they couldn’t. And the main reasons why were Ben Davies and Wayne Hennessy.
If any player has been transformed by Antonio Conte, it’s Ben Davies. The Welshman has always been a solid defender but he’s been transformed by the Italian coach into a defensive animal, hurling his body at the ball every time Ukraine had a shot at goal.
Davies blocked so much, cleared so often, and was a majestic last line of defence. Ukraine tried but could not dribble him once during the 95 minutes, and when they managed to get shots off by simplying playing away from Davies, they found another big problem.
Ben Davies' game by numbers vs. Ukraine:
3 accurate long balls
2 blocked shots
2 duels won
0x dribbled past
An absolute rock at the back. 🪨 pic.twitter.com/fuGNKxTzBY
— Squawka (@Squawka) June 5, 2022
The 6’5 goalkeeper had just been relegated from the Premier League with Burnley, but at 35 years-old he had the game of his life. Every time Ukraine let it fly, and even hit the target, Hennessey emerged like a colossus and thundered the ball away.
Ukraine managed nine shots on target, nine! That’s the most any side has had in 2022 World Cup qualification without scoring. And the only reason they didn’t score is Hennessey flying around his goal, clawing shots away. Whether it was kicking shots away with his feet or diving to claw shots out of mid-air, Hennessey was always equal to the task; his save from Artem Dovbyk was particularly magical.
Wayne Hennessey's game by numbers vs. Ukraine:
8 accurate long balls
4 saves from inside the box
1 clean sheet
A phenomenal performance. 🧤 pic.twitter.com/dTD3ZLUH57
— Squawka (@Squawka) June 5, 2022
“I think that’s probably my best game in a Wales shirt,” said the stopper after the game, in a moment of phenomenal understatement. Henneessey was ridiculous and Danny Ward will have to be happy with a spot on the bench for the forseeable future.
What do the Welsh national team and legendary rapper 2Pac have in common? They each love(d) Hennessey.
9 – Wayne Hennessey made nine saves for Wales in this match, while Ukraine’s nine shots on target were the most by a team without scoring during a game in the 2022 European World Cup qualifying campaign. Heroic. pic.twitter.com/id4lXDDY4O
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) June 5, 2022
Of course defending well is only going to be enough to take it to extra time and penalties. To win the game you need to score, and sure enough when Wales needed a goal they turned to Gareth Bale, and sure enough Gareth Bale delivered.
34 minutes into the game Wales had a free-kick out wide on the left-flank, a possible source of danger. Up stepped Bale, sending in a devilish whipped ball into the area. It was low, flat and coming in at a high rate of knots. Andriy Yarmolenko, Ukraine’s goalscoring hero from Hampden, lunged to try and head it away and was only able to divert it into his own goal.
For Ukraine, it was a heartbreaking way to lose a game of football. But Wales won’t care (and Bale’s free-kick was arguably heading on target so he may even be awarded the goal after further inspection) because it’s taken them to the World Cup. Their first since 1958.
The moment Wales knew they would be playing at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. pic.twitter.com/fzvsg2kMiQ
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) June 5, 2022
“It’s the greatest result in history,” said Bale after the game. And honestly it was truly monumental. The last time Wales were at a World Cup, Manchester United and Liverpool had just 5 league titles each and the world had never even heard of Pele. In fact it was against Wales that the 17 year-old Pele scored his first-ever goal at a World Cup. It’s been that long.
But the long, long wait is finally over and this bold and brave Wales side is heading to Qatar and would you bet against them qualifying from a group featuring England, the USA and Iran? With Davies dominance, Bale brilliance and Hennessey hurling himself at every shot in sight?
Don’t count them out!