It is not quite a case of all roads point to Russia for Wales, but the path to next summer’s World Cup finals has certainly become a little clearer. A third successive qualification victory, courtesy of Tom Lawrence’s first goal for his country, means that another win against the Republic of Ireland in Cardiff on Monday will all but guarantee a place in the World Cup play-offs.
Although that will be easier said than done with Martin O’Neill’s side standing in their way in a winner-takes-all encounter, it is a scenario that Wales would have welcomed not so long ago, when their World Cup hopes were hanging by a thread after five successive draws.
Victories over Austria, Moldova and now Georgia have breathed new life into this qualification campaign at just the right time, with the latest success made all the more impressive given the absence of Gareth Bale.
To put things into context, this is the first time that Wales have won a match without Bale on the pitch in four years and although Coleman said before the game that he was convinced the team could cope, his players needed to prove that was the case with the sort of gritty, resilient performance that got them over the line in Tbilisi.
Ashley Williams, who has endured a difficult time at club level with Everton, was a huge presence in central defence. Joe Allen used the ball intelligently in midfield and Aaron Ramsey never stopped running. Yet it was Lawrence, the 23-year-old Derby winger, who stole the show with an eye-catching display, including the defining moment of the game.
His goal, four minutes into the second half, gave Wales a precious away win against a team that held them to a 1-1 draw in Cardiff last year and took two points off the Republic of Ireland last month.
Make no mistake – Georgia are much better than their ranking of 103rd in the world suggests, and there were times in the final half an hour when Wales lived extremely dangerously. That the visitors managed to hang on owed much to Wayne Hennessey’s sharp reflexes, some backs-to-the-wall defending and Georgia’s toothless attack.
Coleman was understandably delighted with the result but especially pleased for Lawrence. “I’m absolutely thrilled for Tom for more than one reason,” the Wales manager said.
“He did a real good job for us against Austria in a very tough game and he came off, Ben Woodburn goes on and scores a famous goal and it was all about Ben. Then we go to Moldova and Tom does a job for us. He comes off again and Ben goes on and sets up the goal.
“There was nothing against Tom, he has done good work for us. Tonight it was all about Tom. His job was with possession and without possession and he absolutely nailed it. The goal was sensational.”
It was a special moment for Lawrence to mark his ninth cap with such an important goal – his first at senior level for Wales. Receiving the ball from Ramsey around 30 yards from goal, he sidestepped a challenge and unleashed an angled drive from just outside the area that found the far corner after a touch from Giorgi Loria, the Georgia goalkeeper.
It was a fine strike with plenty of power – Lawrence could not have hit it much better – yet Loria got two hands to the ball and arguably should have done better.
Wales had looked the more accomplished team before the opening goal and had squandered a number of reasonable chances to take the lead in the first half. Ramsey, set up by Lawrence, dragged a left-footed effort wide in the fourth minute, before Andy King’s volley was pawed away by Loria.
Burnley’s Sam Vokes, who was preferred up front to Hal Robson-Kanu, came close to a breakthrough when he got in front of his marker but steered a close-range shot narrowly wide of the post.
Georgia, however, had plenty of the ball and ought to have taken the lead eight minutes before half-time. Otar Kakabadze crossed from the right flank, where the hosts caused Wales plenty of problems, and Giorgi Kvilitaia,unmarked in the Wales penalty area, headed the ball into the ground and past Hennessey’s far post.
It was a poor miss and there were also occasions in the second half when Wales, retreating ever deeper and unable to keep the ball, were grateful for Georgia’s profligacy in front of goal. Giorgi Merebashvili seemed to overcomplicate things when he twisted one way and then the other before seeing his shot repelled by Hennessey, and Wales hearts were in mouths again when Kakabadze escaped down the right late on, only to wastefully overhit his cross.
In the end it was a perfect evening for Coleman, rounded off by the fact that none of the seven players on a yellow card picked up the booking that would have ruled them out of the Ireland match, which promises to be quite an occasion.
“I think it will be a sensational atmosphere,” said Coleman. “Republic of Ireland will come to party. They won’t fear us. But it will be a great game and we welcome the challenge.”
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