The defining image of the evening was a horrible one as Séamus Coleman left the field on a stretcher, holding an oxygen mask and with his right leg broken. It was an awful tackle from Neil Taylor that left Coleman pointing to his leg in despair and there were some horrifying pictures of the damage that was inflicted. Taylor received a red card and Coleman was taken straight to hospital.
That moment overshadowed everything else and will come as a huge blow to Everton as well as the Republic of Ireland. Martin O’Neill, the Ireland manager, talked afterwards about a player who had been “having the season of a lifetime at club level” and expressed his hope that Coleman would be able to fight back.
Taylor, according to Chris Coleman, the Wales manager, was distraught. The Aston Villa left-back knows what it is like to suffer a serious injury after fracturing his ankle back in 2012, while playing for Swansea, and the coach was quick to make that point when defending his player’s reputation.
The bottom line, though, is that it was a desperately poor challenge from Taylor and came at a time when things had started to spiral out of control for Wales. Moments earlier Gareth Bale lunged to meet Chris Gunter’s cross from the right, clattered into John O’Shea and picked up a yellow card that means he is now suspended for the away game against Serbia in June.
There was a school of thought among some people afterwards that Bale should have got a straight red card. Either way Wales will be without their best player for arguably their toughest game in this qualification campaign. For Ireland, who were resilient and combative throughout, this result was much more satisfactory, even if it was hard to take any positives from the night because of Coleman’s injury.
Serbia have overtaken them at the top of Group D but Ireland have maintained their four-point advantage over Wales and O’Neill highlighted that three of their remaining five matches are at home. Capitalising on their numerical advantage, Ireland might have pinched victory in the end, when James McClean, who covered every blade of grass in a man-of-the-match performance, had one shot blocked and another deflected behind. At the other end Bale set off on one of those marauding runs and came within inches of finding the top corner with a terrific 30-yard shot.
Ultimately, though, Wales never did enough. They had plenty of possession, especially in a first half when Ireland sat deep, with everyone behind the ball at times apart from Shane Long, but Wales lacked that creative spark. The game passed Aaron Ramsey by, Hal Robson-Kanu was withdrawn at half-time and Bale was well short of his best.
The Real Madrid forward did, in fairness, produce the best moment of a drab first half. Picking up the ball 10 yards or so inside the Ireland half, Bale checked inside on to his left foot and delivered an inch-perfect diagonal pass that invited Taylor to run in behind Coleman. The full-back would have been in on goal but his touch let him down and Bale was left holding his head in his hands.
The only major talking point in that opening 45 minutes came on the stroke of half-time when Glenn Whelan raised his arm and caught Joe Allen, his Stoke City team-mate, in the throat with an elbow. Allen was bitterly upset and the two players ended up squaring up to one another. Yet Nicola Rizzoli, the Italian referee, decided to take no action against Whelan, who could easily have been sent off.
Wales started the second half with greater urgency and finally, after 48 minutes of waiting, there was a shot on target. Darren Randolph easily saved Bale’s 30-yard free-kick but the Ireland keeper looked nothing like as comfortable moments later when the same player whipped a shot from wide on the left that flashed past the far post.
The game had started to open up a little as Ireland also showed more attacking conviction. Ashley Williams had to time his tackle perfectly to deny Jonathan Walters and, from the corner that followed, Richard Keogh ought to have done better with a ball that ended up coming off his thigh and sliding behind.
Then came the two flashpoints involving Bale and Taylor and Wales were suddenly in a state of disarray. Bale’s attempt to connect with Gunter’s low centre seemed to be desperate rather than malicious, although at the very least it merited a yellow card. Taylor’s tackle, however, was reckless and the seriousness of the injury was immediately apparent.
Ireland poured forward in those closing stages, chasing the goal that would have allowed them to return to the top of the group and all but extinguish Wales’ hopes of reaching the World Cup finals.
There were a couple of almighty goalmouth skirmishes and Wayne Hennessey caused panic in the Wales defence at one point when he dropped the ball. Ireland, though, were unable to take advantage in a game that finished with everyone’s thoughts turning to their right-back.