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McClean fires Ireland to World Cup play-off with vital victory in Cardiff

The West Brom winger struck in the second half to keep Ireland on track to make it to Russia.

James McClean celebrates scoring his sides opening goal Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Wales 0
Ireland 1

– Paul Dollery reports from Cardiff City Stadium

IRELAND’S HOPES OF securing a place at next summer’s World Cup in Russia are well and truly still alive after a memorable night in Cardiff.

Twelve minutes into the second half of their final Group D qualifying fixture, James McClean scored the only goal of a nail-biting encounter with Wales which may not have been pretty, but it was certainly perfect for the Boys in Green.

The result means that Ireland have finished second in their group behind Serbia, so they’ll now advance to a two-legged play-off which will take place next month. Victory there will send the nation to its first World Cup since 2002.

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill made three changes to his starting line-up from Friday’s night’s 2-0 win against Moldova in Dublin. With Robbie Brady and James McClean back from suspension, both players were restored to the team. Harry Arter was also drafted into the midfield, with Callum O’Dowda, Wes Hoolahan and the injured Shane Long making way.

Ireland fans celebrate their sides opening goal Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Chris Coleman, who saw his Wales side win 1-0 in Georgia three days ago, made just one personnel adjustment, with Hal Robson-Kanu being preferred to Sam Vokes up front.

Wales dominated possession from the outset and kept their opponents penned into their own half early on, as Ireland struggled to lay a glove on the home side.

The first sniff of a chance came with just over two minutes on the clock when Robson-Kanu met Ledley’s corner at the near post but couldn’t direct his header on target. Moments later, Ireland goalkeeper Darren Randolph was called into action to push a long-range Aaron Ramsey effort over the crossbar.

Ireland gradually began to see more of the ball and they threatened for the first time in the 17th minute. After Joe Allen was booked for a foul on Irish captain David Meyler, the ball found its way to McClean wide on the left from the subsequent free-kick.

The West Brom winger did well to send a low cross into the Welsh six-yard box but it was cut out by Wales skipper Ashley Williams. From the resultant corner-kick, Jeff Hendrick’s half-volley from 20 yards out sailed over the crossbar.

Jeff Hendrick with Aaron Ramsey Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Hendrick had another opportunity shortly afterwards when James Chester’s headed clearance fell to the Burnley midfielder. However, his tame effort failed to trouble Wayne Hennessey in the Wales goal.

Tom Lawrence, who scored the winner for Wales in Tbilisi on Friday, tried once again to open the scoring tonight but his drilled strike was well saved by Randolph.

Just after the half-hour mark, Shane Duffy fired wide for Ireland after being teed up courtesy of some good work by defensive partner Ciaran Clark.

Wales were then dealt a blow as Allen, who had been combining well with Aaron Ramsey in the middle of the park, was withdrawn due to an apparent head injury caused by a heavy challenge from Meyler. Jonny Williams was introduced in place of Allen.

David Meyler and James McClean tackle Joe Allen Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

On the stroke of half-time, Robbie Brady took on Ben Davies and turned inside from the right before unleashing a shot from a difficult angle. Hennessey saved comfortably.

Six minutes after the restart, a section of the vociferous home support thought they’d seen their side take the lead, only to realise that Chester’s header from Ramsey’s corner had struck the side netting.

Randolph then produced a superb save to deny Robson-Kanu, who got his head on a cross from Jonny Williams. From the corner that followed, Davies headed over.

Ireland were left frustrated when Slovenian referee Damir Skomina failed to award a free-kick to Arter when the Bournemouth midfielder appeared to be bundled over on the edge of the Welsh penalty area. But that incident was soon forgotten.

Hendrick robbed Ashley Williams of possession deep inside the Wales half and broke down the right. His low cross came to Arter, whose stepover allowed the ball to reach the unmarked McClean on the penalty spot. The Derry native applied an emphatic right-footed finish to stun the home crowd and put Ireland in the ascendancy.

James McClean scores his sides opening goal Source: James Crombie/INPHO

As Wales sought to deliver a swift response and Ireland shored up their defence, Davies, Robson-Kanu and Ramsey all had efforts that failed to cause problems for Randolph.

With Wales desperately searching for an equaliser, Ireland spent the vast majority of the final half an hour penned into their own third. But led by Duffy and Clarke at the heart of the rearguard, Martin O’Neill’s men defended heroically.

Despite a nerve-wracking ending at the home of Cardiff City Football Club with five additional minutes played, Ireland held on to seal a result which will keep the Irish contingent in the Welsh capital celebrating long into the night.

Wales: Wayne Hennessey; Chris Gunter, James Chester, Ashley Williams (c), Ben Davies; Joe Allen (Jonny Williams, 37), Joe Ledley; Andy King (Ben Woodburn, 65), Aaron Ramsey, Tom Lawrence; Hal Robson-Kanu (Sam Vokes, 71).

Ireland: Darren Randolph; Cyrus Christie, Shane Duffy, Ciaran Clark, Stephen Ward; David Meyler (c), Harry Arter (Glenn Whelan, 77); Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick, James McClean; Daryl Murphy (Kevin Long, 90).

Referee: Damir Skomina (Slovenia).

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Paul Dollery

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