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Daniel James goal gives Wales perfect start to Euro 2020 qualification bid

Wales reached the semi-finals of Euro 2016 in France.

Wales’ Daniel James celebrates after scoring against Slovakia (Darren Staples/PA)
Wales’ Daniel James celebrates after scoring against Slovakia (Darren Staples/PA)

Wales opened their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign with a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Slovakia in Cardiff.

Daniel James was the hero on his first competitive Wales start, rifling home in the fifth minute to send a sell-out Cardiff City Stadium crowd into raptures.

The Swansea winger’s only previous international experience was a 56-minute run-out in the November friendly defeat to Albania.

But James has established a growing reputation in the Championship this season, and he robbed Slovakia right-back Peter Pekarik on the edge of the area before drilling a shot past the Newcastle goalkeeper Martin Dubravka.

The last meeting between the two nations saw Wales win an emotionally-charged Euro 2016 opener in Bordeaux on their way to reaching the semi-finals in France.

But this was very much about the present, and the future, as Wales manager Ryan Giggs named a fresh-faced side with seven players having under 10 caps.

Giggs said that he would be judged on the European Championship campaign after 14 months in the job and he placed his faith in the new generation of emerging Welsh talent.

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Wales manager Ryan Giggs is determined to lead his country to the finals of Euro 2020 (Darren Staples/PA)

Gareth Bale took over the Wales captaincy as veteran defender Ashley Williams dropped to the bench and James Lawrence, who spent four years in Slovakian football before moving to Anderlecht, made his first competitive start.

Giggs named an entirely different side from that which had beaten Trinidad and Tobago in a Wrexham friendly on Wednesday.

Slovakia, by contrast, started with the same team that had beaten Hungary 2-0 in their European Championship opener less than 72 hours earlier in Trnava.

Wales had a dream start when Harry Wilson and David Brooks launched a swift raid into Slovakian territory.

The move looked as if it had broken down, but Pekarik dithered and James nipped in to seize the ball back and beat a startled Dubravka with a low shot.

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Daniel James fires in the only goal of the game (Darren Staples/PA)

Wales continued to press and Bale caused panic with a cross which Slovakia just about scrambled clear inside their six-yard box.

Brooks shot into the side-netting before Slovakia enjoyed their best passage of play midway through the half.

But Wayne Hennessey was untroubled in the Wales goal and Brooks went close to doubling the lead after 32 minutes.

The Bournemouth forward tricked his way past David Hancko and Robert Mak to curl his effort just past the far post.

Bale sent two half-chances wide as the first period came to a close and his header brought an athletic save from Dubravka just after the break.

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Wales goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, left, was kept busy by Slovakia in the closing stages (Darren Staples/PA)

Slovakia had their best chance of the contest moments later when Albert Rusnak was denied by the on-rushing Hennessey, the rebound striking him in the face and drifting wide.

The opening appeared to galvanise Slovakia and Hennessey had to react well from Ondrej Duda after Marek Hamsik had cleverly threaded a ball through to the striker.

Wales should have had a two-goal cushion when James’ pace was too much for Pekarik, but Wilson side-footed wide with the goal at his mercy.

James left to a huge ovation as Williams came on and Wales reorganised to a three-man central defence for the final 20 minutes of what had become an increasingly anxious occasion.

Hennessey had to make a smart save from substitute Michal Duris and Pekarik headed into the side-netting before Wales could celebrate their winning start.

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