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McClean's strike slays Dragons as Republic march on to play-offs

Wales 0 Rep of Ireland 1

By Daniel McDonnell

Winning ugly has never looked so good.

On a feisty night in Cardiff, Ireland drained their reserves of energy and courage to keep their World Cup hopes alive.

They did so in a second half where they regained their composure after Wales lost theirs. March's scoreless draw between the sides in Dublin will always be remembered for the horror challenge on Seamus Coleman.

Wales might feel this encounter turned on a first-half collision that brought an end to Joe Allen's evening. They were comfortably the better side during his half hour on the park.

But there was more to this victory than that. Martin O'Neill's side put together the best passage of play in the game to deliver the only goal courtesy of James McClean.

From that point onwards they defended heroically to find the winning line. Shane Duffy was immense, along with the rest of the back four, and Darren Randolph was fantastic in behind.

McClean and Daryl Murphy ran themselves into the ground. David Meyler got in the way whenever necessary. They were legless after five minutes-plus of injury-time but the joy was unconfined.

The atmosphere when the final whistle blew was a world away from the misery at the Aviva Stadium a month ago. In the aftermath of making it to Euro 2016, O'Neill pointed to the doom and gloom after the Scotland game as an example of the critics getting carried away.

That point still gets raised from time to time. This rescue mission could bring things to another level, although there's still a pretty significant job to do next month. Fifa's decision to seed the play-offs stiffens that task because Ireland are guaranteed to be on the wrong side of that draw. Possible opponents include Italy and Portugal.

But this was the outcome O'Neill and the FAI really needed after the haste to announce he was staying on for a third campaign.

Taking the runners-up spot and a play-off from fourth seed is a laudable achievement, although there may still be some regret over the points that got away.

Subsequent results could have been affected by it of course, yet a win in Georgia would have put Ireland in a remarkably strong position heading into this match.

Then again, a scenario where a draw would have booked a play-off might have planted seeds of doubt in the approach. This was do-or-die, and that suits the Irish psyche.

That said, it took a while for O'Neill's players to really enter that mode.

This was never going to be pretty, but the extent of the ugliness in the early minutes was jarring, with Ireland's play extremely limited.

They piled on the pressure in a technically proficient way by executing slick passes and consistently bringing the ball into Ireland's final third.

Shane Long's hip injury confirmed that Daryl Murphy would start, but the way the game panned out might have suited Long as Ireland needed a speedster to chase the Hail Marys that were sent forward.

The shot count was low with half chances for Hal Robson-Kanu, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen that wouldn't have warranted a mention in a game with clear-cut openings.

Irish forays forward were so rare that any free-kick or throw-in in the Welsh half resulted in the cavalry being sent forward.

In truth, the key moment of the half was Allen getting caught in an unpleasant McClean and Meyler sandwich.

The groggy playmaker was unable to continue and Wales lost their rhythm as the interval approached. Robbie Brady, who was selected on the right of what played like a 4-5-1, even had a shot on goal with the last action.

Wales resumed with purpose, and the best chance of the match to that point was created by a Chris Gunter cross that was steered goalwards by Robson-Kanu with Randolph producing a top-class stop.

It was a momentum-changer. Ireland pressed on and, from that endeavour, a glorious lead goal was produced.

When an opportunity for Murphy was gathered, the ball was steered to Welsh left full-back Ben Davies, who was dispossessed by Hendrick.

The Burnley player just about succeeded in keeping the ball in play on the right touchline and sent a cross into the area where a dummy from Harry Arter threw the Welsh defence off the scent and McClean was waiting to execute a superb right-footed finish - a goal to rival the team move he converted in Vienna last November.

Chris Coleman emptied his bench in search of inspiration and inevitably Ireland dropped back with Murphy tiring. Wales continued to pass the ball reasonably well, yet there was an absence of composure in their shooting.

Where possible, Ireland sought to run down the clock. Arter was the master in this department.

Wales had sent for the energy of Ben Woodburn, and Jonathan Williams, Allen's replacement, was sprightly. But the Irish back four were seeing everything that was coming their way; Wales were finding it hard to really stretch them and frustration inevitably set in.

Duffy was living the dream as the opponent lumped balls in his direction. That was meat and drink. For the away end, the wait was agony as minutes crawled past. But Irish heads were clear.

They have earned the adulation.

Wales: Hennessey, Gunter, Chester, Williams, Davies, King (Woodburn 65), Allen (Williams 37), Ledley, Lawrence, Ramsey, Robson-Kanu (Vokes 71). Unused subs: Taylor, Bradshaw, Maxwell, Brooks, Edwards, Ampadu, Lockyer, Ward, Hedges.

Rep of Ireland: Randolph, Christie, Duffy, Clark, Ward, Arter (Whelan 77), Meyler, Hendrick, Brady, Murphy (Long 92), McClean. Unused subs: Doyle, O'Shea, Keogh, McGeady, Hogan, O'Dowda, Hoolahan, Hourihane, Elliot, Maguire.

Man of the match: James McClean

Match rating: 7/10

Referee: Damir Skomina

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