Wales welcomed Croatia to the Cardiff City stadium on Sunday evening as the qualification process for Euro 2020 approaches its end.
Wales entered the match in fourth place with seven points, but with two games in hand over second-place Hungary and one over third-place Slovakia. Croatia top the group and had been topping it even before this game, with 13 points from six games.
Wales manager Ryan Giggs was without the services of Juventus midfielder Aaron Ramsey and Bournemouth defender Chris Mepham through injury.
Wayne Hennessey was in goal. Giggs was criticized for giving a chance to Tom Lockyer over Ashley Williams in Mepham’s absence, but he stuck to his guns and chose Lockyer beside Joe Rodon again. Ben Davies and Connor Roberts covered the defensive flanks, while Joe Allen and Ethan Ampadu played in deeper midfield roles. Gareth Bale and Daniel James provided pace on the attacking flanks, and Jonathan Williams started behind striker Kieffer Moore.
Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic apparently isn’t counting on Mario Mandzukic anymore, while goalkeeper Danijel Subasic hadn’t joined the team due to a hamstring injury.
Dominik Livakovic stood between the posts. Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida paired up at the back, flanked by Borna Barisic and Tin Jedvaj. Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic acted as the double pivot in midfield, with Nikola Vlasic more advanced. Striker Bruno Petkovic was supported by Josip Brekalo and Ivan Perisic from wide positions.
The First Half
Eight minutes of tame football preceded some great work by Brekalo who broke from the left and his pass, intended for Petkovic, was extended to Vlasic whose trickling shot from the edge of the box grazed the post on its way into the net.
Brekalo almost set up another within four minutes as his cross and movement of Perisic broke the Welsh offside trap. The Bayern man headed accurately to the bottom corner, but Hennessey produced a spectacular save.
Another minute later, another worry for the home side. A rash challenge by Vida resulted in James staying on the ground in need of medical assistance and the Besiktas defender getting booked. Fortunately, the Manchester United winger continued playing.
In the 20th minute, Modric gave his Real Madrid teammate a chance to equalize from a free-kick by tripping Moore around 20 yards out, but Bale’s effort hit the wall. But from that moment on, the game burst into life.
Wales took control of the proceedings and charged forward, while the Croats defended with grit and determination. Even striker Petkovic was seen doing some defensive work inside his own box and not only on set-pieces. But after a while, the visitors succeeded in taking the ball and slowing the game down, before moving their lines forward.
Though initially set in a 4-2-3-1 shape, Croatia frequently switched to 4-4-2 with Vlasic joining Petkovic upfront and Modric and Kovacic stepping into line with Brekalo and Perisic. In fact, all of their midfielders often changed positions, and every one of them found himself as the furthest man up on more than one occasion.
On the other hand, the Welsh were rather rigid in their approach, with every player rarely leaving his default position. Ampadu and Allen were ever present between the defence and the attack, and they did reasonably well against the confusion Croatia tried to inflict them with. But the visitors had the lead, and there was very little Wales were doing to change that fact.
Quite apart from that, there were a few question marks concerning individual performances of the home players. Giggs’s faith in Lockyer proved even more questionable than before – it was him who allowed Brekalo to get past him before creating the chance that resulted in the opening goal, and it was him that failed to step out and allowed Perisic to stay onside for the chance that followed. Bale wore the captain’s armband, but he was doing very little to inspire his teammates. Both he and James on the other flank were being stopped with ease by Jedvaj and Barisic. Williams and Moore worked hard, but the Croatian players they were facing seemed too clever for them.
However, halfway into the first-half injury time, Davies charged forward, played a one-two with Bale and employed his captain again. Bale was this time facing the goal inside the box. His pace took him one step ahead of Lovren and he used the advantage he had gained to slot past Livakovic, to the dismay of the Croatian players who believed Davies had fouled Kovacic in the buildup. Lovren was the loudest in protest and received a yellow card for his effort, but on second viewing, it was quite obvious that Davies reacted really well and punished Kovacic for a lazy piece of play.
The Second Half
Kovacic was left in the dressing room after the break and maybe he had injured himself in the duel that preceded the equalizer, but it seemed more likely that Dalic felt he needed the services of Ivan Rakitic on the pitch.
Less than a minute into the second period, a clash with Petkovic left Ampadu on the ground in a situation similar to the one James faced in the first half. Petkovic was booked, but unlike James, Ampadu wasn’t able to stay on the pitch. Joseff Morrell came on in his place.
Croatia seemed to have caught some kind of a bug from that moment on. Wales were dominating the ball more easily than before, and even the visitors’ defending seemed far from level-headed on a few occasions. They could have, however, retaken the lead in the 56th minute as their counterattack got Jedvaj in a surprisingly advanced position as he was targeted by Perisic’s cross inside the box, but he was stopped by the joint efforts of Lockyer and Rodon.
Wales continued attacking, and Bale had a terrific run after selling a dummy to Rakitic and charging into the box on the hour-mark, but he was tripped slightly by Barisic and lost his balance just enough to lose the ball. Referee Bjorn Kuipers saw no reason to award a penalty.
A few minutes later, Dalic withdrew Petkovic and sent Ante Rebic into the fray, and within a minute the newcomer combined well with Perisic on the right and helped him create a chance, but the Welsh defence reacted well.
As time went on, it became obvious that the home side lacked a bit of creative spark. Croatia found it easier by the minute to absorb their attacks and turn defence into attack, and Giggs decided to replace the ineffective Williams with Harry Wilson. Another notable change was that Bale and James had switched places, with the captain now on the left and the youngster on the right.
Bale was now trying to take matters into his own hands, sensing perhaps that a moment of inspiration might come his way. He asked for the ball as often as possible, charged forward, cut inside, tried dribbling and shooting, but all to no avail.
Croatia were now turning the volume up, trying to swing the game in their favour. They reclaimed the initiative and started pushing the Welsh lines back towards Hennessey, pressing high when off the ball and keeping their heads in possession. Vlasic and Rakitic were winning battles in the middle, and Brekalo got involved on the ball more, trying to run past an opponent to create an extra man. Modric was in the holding role; the playmaker was pulling the strings from deep, using his vast experience to do the job.
Towards the end, it looked as if both teams were satisfied with the prospect of winning a point. Giggs replaced Moore with Tyler Roberts for the last three minutes which should have signaled a different attacking approach and Wales had a chance straight away. Wilson broke down the right and as he employed Roberts, Modric took him out. The referee played advantage but Roberts failed to make it count.
With plenty of stoppage to be made up for, Kuipers added eight minutes of injury time, through which Bale limped injured but Giggs had no substitutions left. Wales was therefore playing practically with 10 men, but Croatia never looked like giving a real go at winning the game late.
The game was very fierce, with eight names in the referee’s book as a good indicator of just how fierce, but with very little creativity. Both sides had their moments of domination, but apart from the two goals and a superb save from Hennessey, there were no clear-cut chances. In the end, the result is fair, though it’ll be Croatia who feel good about it as it gets them very close to confirming a place at the tournament next year.
For Wales, it’s an uphill battle but they still have a shot at qualifying. They have two games to play (Azerbaijan away and Hungary at home) and must win both. On top of that, they will need Croatia to get the job done in style and beat Slovakia in Zagreb next month in a game where Dalic won’t be able to call upon his preferred centre-back pairing. Both Vida and Lovren are suspended after picking up yellow cards in Wales.
WALES: Hennessey 8, Lockyer 6, Rodon 7.5, Davies 7.5, C. Roberts 7, Ampadu 6.5 (50′ Morrell 5.5), Allen 7, Williams 5 (68′ Wilson 7.5), James 7.5, Bale 7, Moore 6 (87′ T. Roberts N/A).
CROATIA: Livakovic 7, Lovren 7, Vida 7, Barisic 7.5, Jedvaj 7, Modric 7.5 (90′ Badelj), Kovacic 6 (46′ Rakitic 7), Brekalo 7.5, Perisic 7.5, Vlasic 7.5, Petkovic 7.
GOALS: Vlasic 9′, Bale 45’+3.
YELLOW CARDS: Vida 15′, Lovren 45’+3, Petkovic 46′, Moore 57′, Rakitic 85′, Allen 86′, Modric 89′, James 90’+6.
REFEREE: Bjorn Kuipers (Netherlands).
DATE & VENUE: October 13, 2019, Cardiff City Stadium, Cardiff, Wales.