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Letter from Cardiff: Captain Coleman the bearer of good news and Scotland's pain can again be Ireland's gain

Hopes of reaching next year’s World Cup in Russia all come down to a winner-takes-all meeting with Wales.

- Ben Blake reports from Cardiff 

AS THE IRISH players took part in a couple of possession drills on the Cardiff City Stadium pitch yesterday evening, an interested spectator sat next to the touchline.

The team’s captain Seamus Coleman hasn’t kicked a ball since the reverse fixture of tonight’s meeting between Wales and Ireland in Dublin, when he left the field on a stretcher after suffering breaks to his right tibia and fibula.

A view of Ireland training Ireland training at the Cardiff City Stadium yesterday. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

But Killybegs’ favourite son continues to meet up with the squad and lend moral support as he attempts to work his way back to full fitness. Quite often a man of few words, Coleman has grown into his role and become a leader since Martin O’Neill chose him to take over the armband duties, and he has always shown an infectious passion for representing his country.

This weekend’s build-up to the final set of qualifiers has focused as much on permutations involving other groups as it has on Ireland and this evening’s hosts. Over the past couple of nights, we’ve discovered all kinds of new allegiances after working out the various possibilities.

That meant rejoicing as Martin Skrtel’s late own goal handed Scotland a win over Slovakia, praying that Bosnia-Herzegovina failed to overcome Belgium in a bonkers game that finished 4-3 in our favour, before selfishly turning our backs on our Celtic cousins and temporarily becoming diehard fans of their Group F rivals Slovenia.

Any result barring victory for Gordon Strachan’s side in the early kick-off in Ljubljana yesterday and the winner of Wales-Ireland would be assured of a play-off place, but it was the visitors who struck first through Leigh Griffiths’ volley with a little over a half-hour played.

At critical times over the past four years, luck has been on the side of this Irish team and from that point the tide began to turn as Slovenian substitute Roman Bezjak headed in an equaliser just after half-time. Back in Cardiff, Coleman was keeping a close eye on the live scores while watching his international team-mates train.

After being alerted to the goal, he caught O’Neill’s attention to inform him of the development. With the session still open to the media, the moment was witnessed by some members of the press pack and captured perfectly by Press Association photographer Nick Potts.

Republic of Ireland Training and Press Conference - Cardiff City Stadium Coleman telling O'Neill that Slovenia have scored. Source: Nick Potts

Bezjak, who is currently on loan at HNK Rijeka from German second division side SV Darmstadt, then etched his name into the history books alongside the likes of Gary Mackay and Valeri Qazaishvili — as men remembered for proving instrumental by inadvertently helping Ireland’s cause — with a second goal.

The final moments were more than a little nervy. Robert Snodgrass pulled the Scots level and Slovenia had a man sent off in injury-time but just about held out as the media room in the Cardiff City Stadium erupted.

Having missed out on a play-off spot to Ireland in the last qualification campaign when it looked at one point that they had done enough, it’s another bitter pill for Strachan, his players and the supporters to take as the 20th anniversary of their last World Cup appearance approaches.

But the Tartan Army’s pain can once again become our gain and a three points tonight will secure the route to two-legged tie next month.

Slovenia v Scotland - 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying - Group F - Stadion Stozice The Scottish players trudge off the pitch after drawing 2-2 with Slovenia. Source: Adam Davy

When the fixtures for these qualifiers were originally released, most predicted there would be much at stake in this encounter and all week it has felt like we were building up to a genuinely massive occasion.

With the undoubtedly world class Gareth Bale forced to watch from the stand due to injury, there is little between these two fairly evenly-matched sides. Wales boss Chris Coleman spoke well about yesterday about the “golden era” of Welsh football and ending their 60-year World Cup drought seems the natural progression after reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2016.

But this is the type of atmosphere O’Neill thrives on and he has been able to get his players up for must-win games in the past — think Germany at home and Italy last summer — so it would be foolish to write Ireland off.

You can bet there will be plenty of bite between the sides too given what happened back in March and the Irish players would surely love nothing more than to hand their injured captain a boost by keeping the possibility of him returning to play in a major tournament alive.

How are Wales likely to line out against Ireland without Gareth Bale?

O’Neill calls on Ireland to channel spirit of Lille in crunch Cardiff clash

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Ben Blake

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