The scene at the final whistle said everything about a sizeable opportunity missed. An eerie hush fell inside the stadium following an exhausting contest and now Wales require favours to qualify automatically for Euro 2024. Wales’s players were splayed across the pitch, acutely aware they had blown the chance to take a huge stride towards Germany.
A floored Chris Mepham lay perpendicular, Joe Rodon crouched. A hunched Jordan James had his hands on knees, Daniel James, his hands on his hips. Armenia were equally deflated at not earning a victory which, in truth, they deserved. By the end, as the game descended into a fraught winner-takes-all contest, Wales were grateful to cling on to a point. “Unfortunately, it is now out of our control,” the Wales manager, Rob Page, said. “With a win we would have been buzzing and looking forward to the game on Tuesday [against Turkey] knowing that a win would see us qualify. It has not materialised as we would have liked.”
By the time Wales land at Cardiff airport approaching the early hours of Sunday morning, they will know the extent of the damage caused by their failure to win here. Page hailed his side’s striking takedown of Croatia last month as the best performance of his three-year reign but a draw here surely ranks as one of the most underwhelming. Croatia beat Latvia 2-0 on Saturday, and are in the box seat to qualify in second behind Turkey, whom Wales host on Tuesday.
At the start of this international break Wales found themselves in a rather appetising position, having wrestled automatic qualification back into their own hands. They knew victories against Armenia and Turkey would book their place at a fourth major tournament in five but, just as after galling defeats to those countries in the summer, the playoffs now appear their most likely route to the finals. Here Armenia, ranked 95th in the world, cemented their status as Wales’s new bogey team. If Wales do not qualify from here, they will point to this draw and defeat by Armenia in Cardiff in June as where things unravelled.
This feels like the kind of setback that will take more than just a five-hour flight home to shake out of their system. Wales fell behind early when Lucas Zelarayan, who scored twice when these sides last met, opened the scoring, driving inside and potting the ball low into the corner after Rodon failed to deal with a corner. Zelarayan should have restored Armenia’s lead on the hour but skied his rebound after Vahan Bichakhchyan cracked a shot against the upright.
Wales were backed by 1,200 supporters, though some settled on more convoluted journeys than others with itineraries including stopovers in Cyprus, Greece and Moldova. Page told how some of them enjoyed sussing out the bar at the Wales team hotel near Victory Park, home to the statue of Mother Armenia that looms over the city, and so on arrival the visiting fans were determined to make themselves heard. Perhaps a little too loudly, with 32 fans arrested on the eve of the game. Their journeys home just got a whole lot longer.
At the start of this campaign a Connor Roberts long throw was the source of Wales’s stoppage-time equaliser against Croatia in Split, when Nathan Broadhead, also a late substitute here, applied the all-important finishing touch. Another long throw was Wales’s route back into the game here, after Neco Williams, Kieffer Moore and Harry Wilson saw efforts blocked. Roberts flung a long throw towards the front post and under pressure from Rodon the Armenia full-back Nair Tiknizyan inadvertently headed past his goalkeeper.
Page removed his coat as he headed down the tunnel at the break and it seemed Wales would carry the momentum into the second half. Brennan Johnson replaced David Brooks five minutes after the restart and Dan James added further pace when replacing Wilson. Johnson’s first action was to run out of road down the right flank. The theory was the pair would provide a welcome zest but both Johnson and James were kept on the periphery of things.
Broadhead, the Ipswich forward, entered in place of Roberts, the Burnley wing-back, with 12 minutes of normal time to run. But from there Armenia were more dangerous and Eduard Spertsyan saw a shot deflected wide. “Their front three caused more problems than ours did,” Page conceded. “We’re all disappointed.”