James spares Ward’s blushes and earns Wales point in Czech Republic

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<span>Photograph: Petr David Josek/AP</span>
Photograph: Petr David Josek/AP

In an ideal world, the lasting image of the night would belong to the Wales supporters, arms wide, backs arched, serenading Aaron Ramsey after a classy and, at times, irresistible display. Perhaps the pandemonium in the stands – and on the touchline – as Daniel James struck to salvage a precious point trumped everything but ultimately the sight of Danny Ward crumpled in his goal net will surely prove impossible to erase from memory given the slapstick manner in which the goalkeeper, so often the hero in recent months, allowed Ramsey’s firm back pass to amble beyond his feet and over the line.

A slow-burning game turned into a barmy contest, typified by that calamitous own goal that had Wales fearing the worst four minutes after the break. For Wales, the galling bit – beyond the ball squirming over the line – is that it stemmed from Ramsey pinching possession from Alex Kral, playing alongside his West Ham teammate Tomas Soucek, on the edge of the box. Ramsey stole in and his next move was to look for Ward. It should have been harmless but Ward miscontrolled the back pass and subsequently pressed self-destruct. “He’s strong-minded, so he will come back from that no problem at all,” said the interim Wales manager, Robert Page. Of course you’re going to be disappointed but he’s a strong character.. The lads will rally around him.”

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Ramsey seemed to relish wearing the captain’s armband in the absence of the injured Gareth Bale, who is expected to return for their final qualifiers of this campaign next month and the way Wales made a team who reached the quarter-finals of Euro 2020 look ordinary without their talisman should provide encouragement before facing Estonia on Monday in Tallinn. Wales remain behind the Czech Republic on goal difference in Group E and given the slew of chances – Kieffer Moore spurned a golden first-half opening and dropped a header wide late on – disappointment was not confined to Ward. “We’re frustrated because we should be sat here with six points from our last two games, instead of two,” Page said. “Second spot is still our aim. We’ve got three games left, [the] Czech Republic have got two. It’s in our hands.”

Danny Ward scores an own goal to gift the Czechs the lead.
Danny Ward scores an own goal to gift the Czechs the lead. Photograph: Martin Divíšek/EPA

The only problem for Wales is that their game in-hand is against Belgium, the runaway group leaders and when Ramsey applied a magnificent finish on 36 minutes, they were en route to what would have been the biggest result of this campaign. This was Ramsey’s first qualifier since he scored twice to seal Wales’ spot at Euro 2020 almost two years ago and this was another magical moment to add to the collection. The only shame was the joy lasted barely a minute, Jakub Pesek tucking home after Ward saved from Filip Novak. Wales fans were still busy singing Ramsey’s name as the midfielder turned in.

Ramsey was typically gracious in possession and alert off the ball, roaming into space at the back post for his goal. Neco Williams sent in a teasing cross from the right and while James failed to connect, an unmarked Ramsey was lurking. There may be a constant furore surrounding his fitness amid his lack of action at Juventus but Ramsey is effortlessly cool in moments when others are overawed. After feinting to shoot, fooling a defender on the goal-line and the goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik, he nonchalantly lifted the ball into the far corner, sparking delirium among the travelling Red Wall, who were centred in one pocket but scattered around this stadium. “I thought he was outstanding,” Page said of Ramsey. “He is an absolute pleasure to watch.”

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Ward’s error gave the hosts a much-needed leg-up. The Wales substitutes Harry Wilson and Connor Roberts arrived on the hour to re-establish order and just as it seemed Wales were in danger of running out of puff, James, who had flattered to deceive, produced a timely equaliser. Wilson arrived energised from the bench and he played a lovely incisive pass into James, which the winger finished emphatically. A lengthy VAR check cleared the goal and it was a strike that flipped the game on its head once more.

Page sensed opportunity and went for the jugular, introducing Sorba Thomas, who was playing non-league for Boreham Wood nine months ago, for his debut and then the Leeds forward Tyler Roberts late on in place of the defender Chris Mepham. Moore dropped a header a yard wide and then Ramsey poked an effort at goal with the outside of his foot as Wales came on strong. “We are disappointed we didn’t get the win,” Page said. “I thought we thoroughly controlled the game and created some great chances. I am really pleased with the performance. We couldn’t throw any more at it.”

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