A sending off, a broken leg, a suspension for Gareth Bale and almost a sensational individual goal for the Real Madrid galáctico. Rarely has a goalless draw contained so much incident but, once the dust settles and the extent of Seamus Coleman’s horrible injury is confirmed, the bottom line here was a result that leaves the Republic of Ireland still well placed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and Welsh hopes now hanging by a thread.
A win earlier in the evening for Serbia means that they are not only four points adrift of Ireland but also Slavoljub Muslin’s team ahead of a visit to Belgrade in June when they must do without Bale following another booking. They will also be without Neil Taylor, who was deservedly shown a straight red card for a dangerously high tackle on Coleman.The Everton right-back was stretchered off with a seriously damaged right leg.
Ireland suffered an upset to their planning literally just seconds before kick-off when James McCarthy was withdrawn from the starting team and replaced in midfield by David Meyler. McCarthy had been a doubt to start all week but was initially named in Martin O’Neill’s team, only for it to be decided not to take the risk after the warm up.
It had little impact on the game-plan with Ireland largely willing to cede possession and defend in numbers before breaking on the counter-attack. It meant that Wales playmaker Joe Allen was largely dictating the tempo of the match even if actually creating clear chances was hugely problematic.
Indeed, even with 60 per cent of first-half possession, Wales were unable to muster so much as a shot on target. The principal threat was predictably Bale but, with Aaron Ramsey soon requiring strapping on his hamstring, there was a lack of pace in how Wales were moving the ball. Ireland captain Coleman did almost gift an immediate chance with an under-hit back-pass but Bale was just unable to intercept.
With O’Neill screaming instruction Antonio Conte-style from the touchline, Ireland were being urged to deny Bale space whenever he did get the ball. James McClean made one especially eye-catching sliding tackle that galvanised the entire Aviva Stadium. Bale did break free once or twice, however, and delivered one very big warning of his threat when he cut back inside from the left and then dissected the entire Ireland defence with one sweeping cross-field pass.
Left wing-back Neil Taylor had both read Bale’s mind and timed his run brilliantly but was horribly let down by his control and the chance went begging. Coleman had decided to start Hal Robson-Kanu rather than Sam Vokes in attack in the hope that his added movement would create space for Bale and Ramsey but John O’Shea and Richard Keogh were utterly dominant in front of Darren Randolph.
It prompted Coleman to introduce the more physical presence of Vokes at half-time. Ireland had been cautious – and certainly very aggressive with some of their challenges - but were not playing completely without adventure. Jeff Hendrick almost released Shane Long with a precise pass but the Southampton striker was just unable to get beyond Ashley Williams.
There was then a series of angry exchanges as Ireland pushed their luck with referee Nicola Rizzoli. First Long appeared to flick a glancing elbow at Williams, who was clearly furious and sure that it had been a deliberate act. Glenn Whelan then did pretty much the same to Allen, his Stoke team-mate. Replays suggested that Allen was also justified in feeling that he had been struck cynically.
Wales did re-emerge with an added attacking purpose and Bale soon had two clear sights of goal. The first followed John O’Shea conceding a free-kick with a block of Ramsey but, having twice scored from a similar range at Euro 2016, his effort cleared the wall but was easily caught by Randolph. Bale then produced a sudden change of pace to sprint clear of Whelan and into space but his shot from 20 yards was a metre outside Randolph’s left post.
Having survived that period of Welsh pressure, Ireland then produced their best spell of the game. Long’s aerial strength was evident when he rose to deftly head a chance into Jon Walters's path but Williams delivered a perfectly timed tackle just a split-second before he could shoot. From the resulting corner, Keogh also found space but was unable to connect sufficiently.
With Welsh frustration mounting, two tackles followed in the space of seconds that will have huge repercussions. First Bale, in trying desperately to get onto the end of a cross, caught O’Shea with a high studs-up lunge. It was not malicious but Rizzoli’s booking was correct. Taylor then dived in recklessly on Coleman’s right leg.
Ireland sensed their chance and pressed forward, with both McClean and Keogh each having shots blocked. Wales were ragged but can always threaten any team provided Bale is on the pitch and the talisman almost ended the night spectacularly in slaloming past several defenders and then unleashing a shot that grazed the outside of the post.
A drab match ends in a goalless draw. Serbia, who won tonight, join Ireland on 11 points. But the only thing anyone will remember is that awful Taylor tackle that has severely injured Seamus Coleman. There are ghoulish pictures but I'm not going to publish them. You know where to look if you feel you need to.
McGeady gets a second opportunity and stands up a cross to the back post. Long, backpedalling, can only steer a tame-ish header towards goal and Wales scramble it clear. Ireland have another go but Hennessey grabs it.
At last they get the ball into the box when McGeady crosses but Wales outnumber them.
The second of two added minutes. Ireland play it along the back four as Wales retreat into their half in depleted but compact shape.
Dreadful mistake from Hennessey who drops a right-wing cross in his six-yard box and owes Williams deep gratitude when his captain hacks it away before Long can pounce.
Whelan takes the corner and spoons it straight down Hennessey's throat.
Wales corner on the left, taken by Ramsey and headed weakly by Bale. Ireland break and McGeady clips a near post cross for Walters that is toed behind for a corner.
And Bale almost embarrasses the referee by robbing Keogh on the right, and pelting in from the touchline to wobble a left-footed, laces-heavy drive past the angle of Randolph's right post and the crossbar.
Bale kicks McLean in the stomach when he turns blind to hack a volley. That should have been a second yellow card really.
McLean bends it in to the near post with his left foot but Wales scramble it clear back out to McLean. He bursts past Bale and sends in an outswinger with his right foot that surprises his colleagues. It was a peach of a cross but no one thought he'd hit it with his swinger.
Long hustles Gunter to win a throw that ignites an Ireland raid down the right that ends with Christie's cross blocked out for a corner by Richards.
Ireland sub, Aiden McGeady comes on for David Meyler.
Raking diagonal cross from Whelan skims the top of Long's head at the back stick. Ireland pump up the volume and treat every tackle with a shrill wail.
McLean set up the shot with his blocked left-foot drive and met the rebound with his right.
McLean shoots from 22 yards after some penalty box pinball and hits Chester on the backside to win the corner.
Whelan bends it towards the far post for Keogh sneaking round but he fouls Gunter to win the header. They're not showing the replay 'on grounds of taste'. Looked sickening from the brief glimpse before I hurriedly shifted my gaze to the keyboard
The cameras pan away from Coleman's leg as he takes on oxygen on the stretcher. Cyrus Christie replaces him. Jazz Richards replaces Joe Ledley to take the left wing-back role. Ireland free-kick.
'He's not that type of player' klaxon!. Neil Taylor is sent off for a hideous tackle on Seamus Coleman. So bad they're not showing the replay. High, reckless, over the ball. Looks like a fracture. A compound fracture of the lower leg.
Bale is booked and apologises to John O'Shea after sliding in with his right foot and catching the defender on the calf, just below the knee, when trying to get on to the end of Gunter's cross.
Allen is the most influential player, probing, running, moving and all at a fair tempo.
Gunter spurts forward up the right and leaves Ward blowing out of his backside. The right wing-back bends in an outswinging cross that is worked back towards the centre of goal and scuffed wide by Vokes.
Whelan recycles the deflection by carving in a diagonal that is hooked on by Walters by the 18-yard line, headed out to Long who scuds a volley wide from 20 yards.
Walters is tripped by Allen 20 yards out when chasing a ball down the channel that caught Williams on the hop. McLean will take again and hammers it into the wall.
Ireland continue to live on scraps but it's how they do it and almost pounce from a corner when the ball is torpedoed across the box and Ward almost manages to connect properly with his attempted 'Shut That Door' flick.
McLean takes the resulting free-kick and wastes it because Ireland are gulled by the offside trap. Whelan eventually re-enters with the full Paul Ince/Terry Butcher/ Tutankhamun head bandage.
Ward's ball up the left for McLean's run is too heavy but he manages to reach it just befor it bobbles out. He can only hook it back at full stretch and Wales knock it 10 yards upfield. Ramsey and Whelan fight for the second ball, the former with his foot at chest height, the latter with his head and it's Whelan who comes off worst, wearing the boot on his brow. It splits his forehead and he has to go off for stitches.
Sorry the scoreboard isn't working tonight which would have informed you that Vokes has come on for Robson-Kanu. Apologies for the omission.
We're treated to the Mary Hopkin songbook now. Strewth. Allen picks a pass, moving the ball further forward and at a quicker tempo. It;s been all them this half.
Good Lord, an email. Those were the days indeed:
John McEnerney writes
Evening Rob, Ireland doing what the rugby lads did last Saturday, making life difficult for the opposition & just waiting for the opportunity to nick a goal. Great to see Paul McGrath looking well & healthy. Without doubt he is one of the greats of Irish football. I'd put him after Ronaldinho as the greatest player I've seen play in the flesh he's just ahead of Zidane, Roy Keane & Messi. The boys in green to nick a set piece winner late in the game.
You're right, John. McGrath was sensational as a player and I too think Ireland will do their sponge act and then strike.
Bale takes the free-kick and scoops it down Randolph's throat. A minute later he finds space on the left and with no backlift, scuttles a powerful diagonal shot across goal and just beyond the right post, Randolph was far more panicked on that occasion.
Allen, the hub as usual, plays a short pass upfield and then Bale turns on to his left from the right and arcs a long diagonal that Taylor nods across the box for Ramsey who claims he was impeded when trying to meet the centre, but he wasn't. Wales settle for a free-kick, 25 yards out to the right when the second ball is contested illegally.
Here we go again and Meyler immediately goes into the book for clattering Ramsey with his biceps as they climbed to challenge for a header.
Allen v Whelan
The replay show Whelan swinging his arm towards Allen's jaw. Should have been sent off.
A former colleague sums up what happens when #COYBIG romance meets reality:
That there is hype of any kind before an Ireland football match is irrefutable proof of mankind's eternal optimism
— Evan Fanning (@evanfanning) March 24, 2017
So far, so Ireland
This is what they do. Wales will have to steel themselves for being ground down and mugged on the counter.
The referee blasts his acme thunderer to end the half. Strong drink should be taken by you if you have the opportunity.
Stoke City's Allen and Whelan have a barney after Whelan catches Allen in the face with his arm as they went up to challenge for a bouncing ball. The referee again takes no further action other than pulling them apart.
Coleman has a rampage up the right, dribbling 20 yards until he falls flat on his face under Ramsey's challenge. He demands a free-kick but there wasn't much contact and Signor Rizzoli declines to give him one. Ireland's trumpeter is about as good as England's.
Ashley Williams is unhappy when Shane Long leaves his foot in on him but there's no booking. Long's ear is bent for a good 30 seconds by Williams upbraiding him.
Ireland have a corner, play Barnes-Wallis with it through the box and cry for a penalty when it skips through Davies's legs then strikes him on the hand. The referee turns away.
Ramsey robs Hendrick and clips it up to Bale who cannot stun the pass and control it. Sums tonight up so far.
There is more than a touch of Big Jack functionality about Ireland under O'Neill. And speaking of which, here's Charlton's greatest player, Paul McGrath.
Ben Davies hacks the ball behind for an Ireland corner. McLean takes it from the right on the David White principle, blasting a head-high centre to the near post, looking to ignite a chaos theory experiment. O'Shea glances it and the ball ricochets near Long but Wales boot it clear.
Bale oddly spurns the opportunity to run at the centre-backs, hesitates and loses possession. Ireland break and try to work a one-two straight through the D but Hendrick, the 'one', dinks his return to Long too close to Hennessey. Terrific atmosphere but pretty blunt fare so far.
Clumsy pass from Robson-Kanu with plenty of grass in front of them ruins a decent attacking opportunity when Ireland were caught for once committing men forward to support Walters and Long.
Ireland are overloading in midfield, inviting Allen and Ramsey to try to pick a pass from halfway, confident they have enough space and time to deal with it if they do.
Wales corner when Long diligently tracks back. Curled to the far post where Williams is penalised for blocking Randolph. Harshly, I reckon.
Aaron Ramsey is troubled by a dead leg. Bale only 10 yards inside Ireland's half, turns on to his left and spears a lovely pass over Keogh and O'Shea for Taylor's clever run. His control does not match the anticipation and adventure that caught Coleman cold and Ireland easily survive the scare. Bale's playing a wandering central role.
Ramsey impetuously gives away a free-kick on the left that McLean takes with his left foot and bends the outswinger away from his runners. Meyler picks it up and wellies a shot miles wide.
Ireland's two shots were about as much use as Wales' zero strikes.
Ireland never have much possession but ceding so much territory chafes the nerves. Walters plonks a ball up the right for Long who wins it, holds it, strong-arms Davies off it then plays it back to Walters who is bullocking forward in support. Allen gets his foot to the ball first before Walters can wrap his foot around a 25-yard shot and though Walters executes an admirably supple somersault, there was no foul.
Diagonal from Bale, right to left, picks out Taylor's run into the box. He beats the trap and cuts it back to Robson-Kanu but Ireland manage to hustle it clear. They have been penned back too much for comfort over this past five minutes.
Wales corner on the left. The werewolf Ledley takes it but doesn't clear the first man and gets another crack at it. Again he aims for Bale, again it's headed clear before it passes the near post. Ireland scramble it upfield but Wales press them and push them back towards their own goal.
Ireland spin a cross into the box from the free-kick towards Keogh who used Gunter like 'a staircase not a ladder' and was duly penalised.
As Ray Houghton, a prince among co-commentators, points out, Ireland are pressing very tight, McLean and Hendrick in particular. Chip infield from the right is headed on by Walters. Williams leapt right through him but the ref gave Long a chance to see what he could do with the flick-on before bringing the game back for the free-kick.
Hennessey clogs it upfield and Keogh wins the header with Bale but Wales, who have planned for this, pounce on the second ball and Ledley spears a pass out to the left whither Bale had split. He takes it three strides further wide then arcs a cross-cum-shot wide of Randolph's back post.
Bale scents a chance when Coleman makes a back-pass to Randolph but the Ireland captain's timing thwarted the former Wales' skipper's run ... no'but just as they say in the North Riding.
Gunter flies up the right to try to exploit Ramsey's facility for playing diagonals for the wing-backs to race on to. Ward was on his toes this time and as the clock hits five the crowd bursts into applause for Ryan McBride.
McLean wins a tackle in the centre-circle, crunching into Bale and then Ireland spray a pass out to the right for Walters' gallop. He reaches the ball but with no support is halted by Davies.
Wales free-kick on the right, 40 yards out, swung in by Bale and headed out by O'Shea, the two survivors from the only previous competitive international between the two in Dublin in 2007.
We begin with Sky's man talking about 'Celtic cousins' and Whelan before thirty seconds are up leads the cavalry charge and lashes a very speculative shot wide. Wales goalkick pick out Robson-Kanu and O'Shea steams into the tackle and knocks the ball out for a throw. This 0- 90mph in Lamborghini-rivalling time.
After the national anthems
The players observe a minute's applause for Ryan McBride et al.
Now we're on to the huddles, inevitably.
Nice touch from Wales
Who gave Ireland's Uachtarán Michael D Higgins a No5 shirt with Ryan McBride's name on it in tribute to the Derry City captain.
There's been a late injury
James McCarthy has been withdrawn from the starting XI after the warm-up and David Meyler starts in his stead. He's going to flick one, he's going to flick one, he's going to FLICK one. That's Ronald Koeman and one of Martin O'Neill's ears.
Niall Quinn on Ireland
"They got a smell of something at the Euros and they want to cling on to it."
Those teams in the trad style
Republic of IrelandRandolph; Coleman, Keogh, O’Shea, Ward; McClean, Whelan, McCarthy, Hendrick; Walters, Long.
Substitutes Westwood, C. Doyle, McGeady, K. Doyle, Horgan, Christie, Egan, Hourihane, Meyler, Hayes, O’Dowda, Pearce.
Wales Hennessey; Davies, Chester, Williams (C); Gunter, Allen, Ramsey, Ledley, Taylor; Bale; Robson-Kanu. Substitutes Ward, Fon Williams, Collins, Walsh, Macdonald, King, Richards, Edwards, Vokes, Wilson, Bradshaw, Woodburn.
Referee Niccola Rizzoli (Italy).
This is the first time since that quarter-final that Chris Coleman has gone for that starting XI from Lille.
The teams are in
— FAIreland (@FAIreland) March 24, 2017
— Wales (@FAWales) March 24, 2017
James McLean and James McCarthy are both fit, then, while McLean's Baggies' team-mate Hal Robson-Kanu starts up front for Wales in preference to quintessential 'Saturday's child' centre-forward, Sam Vokes.
And welcome to coverage of this Group D qualifier between the teams currently sitting unbeaten in first and third. The Republic of Ireland, who made it through to Euro 2016's last 16 where they were knocked out by France, have won three and drawn one of their matches so far to go top, coming back late to earn a point in Belgrade when Daryl Murphy, after 20 caps, scored his maiden international goal and were impressive in repelling waves of attacks in Vienna to nick it with James McLean's third goal of the qualification campaign.
Wales, by contrast, have mirrored Ireland, winning one and drawing three after their run to the semi-finals in France. In each of three successive draws after whacking Moldova 4-0 at home, they have been unable to hold on to leads and were done by the woodwork in seconds against Serbia when Gareth Bale hit the post when 1-0 up in Cardiff and Aleksandar Mitrovic squeezed an equaliser in via the upright with four minutes to go.
The prediction below, which I will distance myself from quicker than the White House and the AHCA this evening, says Wales will win. Ireland are so resilient, so tenacious and patient, I've got them down for a win.
What is it?
It's the Republic of Ireland vs Wales in a 2018 World Cup qualifier.
When is it?
On Friday March 25 - ie tonight.
What time is kick-off?
It's a 7.45pm start in Dublin.
What TV channel is it on?
You can watch it on S4C or S4C HD in Wales and Sky Sports 1 or Sky Sports 1 HD elsewhere. Alternatively, you can join Rob Bagchi here for live updates throughout the match.
What is the team news?
Ireland's probable XI is: Randolph, Coleman, O’Shea, Keogh, Ward, Whelan, McCarthy, Walters, Hendrick, McClean Long
The Wales team, meanwhile, is likely to look something like this: Wales (probable; 3-4-2-1): Hennessey; Chester, Williams, Davies; Gunter, Allen, Ledley, Taylor; Ramsey, Bale; Vokes
What are they saying?
"From our point of view, we have taken a lot of confidence. Especially the younger lads and even the experienced lads have grown as players and that has shown in how we have started this campaign," the 31-year old told the reporters.
"Wales obviously finished on a high having got to the semi-finals and sometimes it can be difficult to keep those standards so high because that was an unbelievable achievement from them.
"We can only concentrate on ourselves... We feel we can go into any game now with the confidence to win."
Coleman has revealed that he broke Wales' self-enforced booze ban after Daniel Sturridge's injury-time winner in Lens.
"It was a dry camp, we were together seven weeks. No alcohol. Staff or players," Coleman said.
"But I had a double whiskey by myself, a sneaky one, out on the balcony after that England game.
"As a manager you have to look at yourself and I thought I was preaching all the time, 'Don't get sucked into this game with England. It is one of three'.
"So I thought were my messages the wrong... 'too much fight, make sure we stand our ground'? I was devastated.
"Not because it was England, but we were at a tournament and we didn't show ourselves in the game."
What are the odds?
Republic of Ireland win - 6/4
Wales win - 59/25
Draw - 21/10
What's our prediction?
Wales to win this one, 2-1.