Aaron Ramsey could not have picked a better place to convert a Panenka penalty as Wales secured a precious point against the Group D leaders, Serbia, to keep alive their hopes of qualifying for the World Cup finals next summer, yet it was a night tinged with regret for Chris Coleman and his players after they allowed victory to slip through their fingers for the fourth time in this campaign.
Playing in the stadium where Antonin Panenka first produced that nonchalant chipped spot-kick, in the 1976 European Championship final for Czechoslovakia against West Germany, Ramsey showed nerves of steel to deliver his own version and for a long time that penalty looked like being the defining moment in the game.
Wales, who were missing the suspended Gareth Bale, played with a great deal of courage and discipline to frustrate Serbia but with 17 minutes remaining Alexsandar Mitrovic broke through on the left to equalise, denying the visitors the win that would have made such a huge difference with only four fixtures remaining.
Sitting in third place and trailing Serbia and the Republic of Ireland by four points after a fifth successive draw, Coleman admitted that Wales now have no margin for error in the rest of the campaign if they want to top the group. “I think realistically, if we want to finish first, [we need] four wins,” the Wales manager said. “If we want to take our chance in a play-off, it’s at least three wins and a draw.”
That challenge starts in early September with a home fixture against Austria and an away trip to Moldova. The bad news for Wales it that Joe Allen will miss the Austria match through suspension after picking up a yellow card against Serbia. The good news is that Bale will be available again.
That Wales coped so well without the Real Madrid forward here owes much to the performance of Ramsey, who was superb. Playing just behind Sam Vokes, Wales’ lone forward, Ramsey used the ball intelligently and made some excellent forward runs to relieve pressure and stretch the Serbia defence. He also converted a penalty kick to remember.
“I didn’t see that coming if I’m honest with you,” Coleman said. “But I had no doubt he’d score because he’s playing with such confidence at the moment. His overall performance was absolutely outstanding. He seems to thrive on that responsibility. It’s not the first time he’s run a game for us.
“His input tonight was immense. If we didn’t have him, I’m not sure we’d have come away with what we did because I thought when we needed someone to keep the ball, hold it and give us a rest, he was fantastic. And the penalty – the noise the supporters make here is incredible but it didn’t matter to him. Full of confidence and a fantastic finish.”
Asked whether he thought Ramsey was deliberately trying to copy Panenka’s penalty because it was the same venue, Coleman said: “Do you know what, I’m pretty sure that he probably hasn’t even seen it. But it was identical. It’s what we thought as soon as he did it. But I don’t think that would have been in Aaron’s thinking.”
It was an audacious piece of skill and came after a comedy of errors from Serbia’s point of view. Vladimir Stojkovic, the Serbia goalkeeper, made a pig’s ear of dealing with Ben Davies’s long ball and ended up bringing down Ramsey just outside the area when he realised that he was unable to shepherd the ball out of play. From the resultant free-kick Luka Milivojevic was penalised for pulling Sam Vokes’s shirt and Ramsey, with a delightful dink into the corner of the net, did the rest.
That goal turned the volume down in a stadium that was a cauldron of noise but it rose again when Serbia equalised. Nemanja Gudelj released a measured pass behind Davies and it was a lovely flick from Aleksandar Prijovic that Mitrovic dispatched inside Wayne Hennessey’s near post. Ramsey, breaking into the area with yet another well-timed run, could still have won it for Wales but his shot with the outside of his boot was turned behind by Stojkovic.
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