Gareth Bale and John Charles, 23,000-day wait and the support - How Wales defeated Ukraine to reach World Cup

“We need to fight for our dream, and our dream is to be in the World Cup. This game is the final of our lives.”

The words of Oleksandr Zinchenko could have been the words of anyone involved in the World Cup play-off final between Wales and Ukraine at Cardiff City Stadium. Whether it was Wayne Hennessey, Ben Davies or Gareth Bale. Andriy Yarmolenko or Ruslan Malinovskyi.

That dream as it was for Wales and dream shattered as it was for Ukraine could be seen in tears of joy and ecstasy amongst the Welsh and tears of sadness and disappointment amongst the Ukrainians.

Success for Ukraine would have been a message of triumph against adversity as Russia’s invasion of the country continues. They had the world pulling for them, as they did at Hampden Park on Wednesday when they swept past Scotland with a display of verve, technique and confidence.

John Charles question

Success for Wales was reaching their first World Cup since 1958. They had a raucous 30,000+ and a nation of three million pulling for them. They also had Gareth Bale.

If he hadn’t already, there is now question he has surpassed John Charles as Wales’ most eminent, prominent and influential footballer in the country's history.

His exit from Real Madrid was confirmed earlier this week, a montage of some of his best moments in the famous white and at odds with a player who has featured just 27 times for the Spanish giants in the past three seasons. There were the wonderful bits of skill, free-kicks, that remarkable solo effort against Barcelona and the overhead kick in a Champions League final.

Ukraine will need to regroupfor the Nations League. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

No, Scotland don’t have a player like Bale. Yes, they do have a player capable of scoring a deflected free-kick, as he did to win the game for Wales. But it was about his presence. It wasn’t one of his better games but the Welsh crowd feed off of him being on the pitch, just as his team-mates do the same. It could be argued Yarmolenko dropped deeper and headed the free-kick past Heorhiy Bushchan due to his wariness of what Bale can produce.

But this was a success made of more than one man. It was an 11-headed dragon. Bale was prominent as was Neco Williams, but more so Davies and Hennessey.

Davies was everywhere. A colossal performance where he led and cajoled, blocked and diverted. Yarmolenko went close late only for his shot to be blocked. As Wales rallied around a colleague on the ground with cramp, it was Davies who was directing the team. When Bale had scored it was Davies who was telling team-mates to keep their heads and remain composed.

Settled better

Gareth's Bale free-kick was directed into the net. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

It was an occasion which could easily get the better of individuals. The atmosphere made sure of that. Yma o Hyd, the Welsh national anthem, was belted out. A cappella by players and supporters in unison as the rain fell in the Welsh capital.

Wales settled better than Scotland did at Hampden Park. There were moments where Ukraine threatened but the midfield control wasn’t there, nor was the constant pressure. Roman Yaremchuk and Zinchenko both had shots saved but the home side’s midfield of Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey did a better job of disrupting Ukraine’s flow. They worked better with the back five and Daniel James was a constant out ball who would take the ball for a run, relieving pressure.

Behind them all, from minute one to the full-time whistle, Hennessey demonstrated why he got the nod from Rob Page ahead of former Aberdeen goalkeeper Danny Ward. He dealt with the conditions expertly and produced a huge moment in the second half when substitute Artem Dovbyk headed towards the top corner only to see it repelled by a big left hand.

As the pressure and tension built it would have been easy for the Wales fans to grow quiet and nervous. But they maintained their voice, reminiscent of an Aberdeen v St Johnstone League Cup semi-final at Tynecastle Park where Dons fans stood around the ground and willed their team into the final.

Wales are jubilant after reaching the World Cup. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Wales were willed onto Qatar and into a group with England, Iran and USA. When they face the latter in the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan later this year it will be 23,531 days since their last World Cup involvement, going down 1-0 to Pele and Brazil.

Ukraine’s time to regroup

Ukraine, like Scotland before them, will have to regroup for the Nations League. But a bigger and more important story plays in the background. Oleksandr Petrakov was asked in the build-up if that could be their last match as a nation. The support their have received from around the world and by their own diaspora should ensure that is not something that is realistic in the future.

Only three of the starters were 30 or above. This Ukraine team can come again and Scotland will see that first-hand in the Nations League later this year.

But the story is Wales and their legacy. They aren't a one-tournament wonder. They reached the semi-finals of Euro 2016 and they will now add a World Cup to that. Led by Bale, who grows more heroic in the all red, representing his country, you wouldn’t rule Page’s men causing an upset or two. And, just like Scotland would have, will relish facing England on the biggest stage of them all.

Ukraine will have Hampden Park, but Wales will have Qatar.

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