Wales 1 Russia 3
I went last night (9th September) to a mixed group of folks from the department (and various of their relatives) to see the FIFA World Cup “Qualifying” game between Wales and Russia at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. I put “qualifying” in inverted commas because, even before last night’s game, Wales were in a situation from which they could no longer qualify from their group. Russia, on the other hand, have a good chance – although they will have to beat Germany to be sure – of making it to the finals in South Africa next year.
When we arrived at the stadium (capacity 74,500), it was clear it was going to be pretty empty for this fixture even though the tickets were only £15 each. In fact the crowd numbered less than 12,000, a majority of which were probably Russian supporters, making the atmosphere inside somewhat eery.
To be honest I expected Russia to win the game fairly comfortably, but Wales had much the better of the opening exchanges and had quite a few chances in the first half an hour. Craig Bellamy (captain for the night) always looked lively, but the Welsh attacks usually lacked incisiveness in the final third of the pitch. Frequently resorting to long-range crosses, but lacking the finish touch of a natural centre-forward, their sorties were usually dealt with fairly comfortably by a well-organized Russian defence. Russia’s cagier approach meant that they didn’t get inside the Welsh penalty area so often, but when they did they looked threatening, with Hennessey being forced into two excellent saves during the first half.
In possession, Russia generally tried to slow the game down and pass the ball around waiting for a mistake. This wasn’t all that successful because their passing wasn’t particularly accurate and some of their players lacked the composure necessary to make this strategy work. Wales were much more direct and played at a higher tempo when they had the ball; their players, however, were generally not as skilful as those in the Russian team. The result was an interesting but rather fragmented game.
On 36 minutes, a little against the run of play, a bit of magic by Andrei Arshavin – by far the best player on the pitch – took him away from his marker and he released Igor Semshov whose perfectly timed run left him clear through on goal. He finished clinically from close range to put the visitors a goal up, which is how it stayed until half time.
About ten minutes into the second half, Wales were back on level terms. Aaron Ramsey’s poorly struck corner kick seemed to surprise the Russian defence who stood like statues as the ball went to James Collins. He jabbed it home between the Russian goalkeeper and the defender on the line who seemed to get in each other’s way.
After that the game opened up a bit but the quality of play deteriorated as Russia seemed to lose patience with its own passing game. Both sides had chances, but as the game wore on Russia seemed the more likely to score. Eventually, about 71 minutes in, clumsy tackling gave Russia a free kick. It looked too far out to be threatening, but the Welsh wall melted away as Sergei Ignashevich’s accurate but harmless-looking shot approached. The ball could easily have been dealt with had the wall stayed in place, but it passed through and left the goalkeeper Hennessey with no chance.
Wales tried to salvage a draw in the remaining twenty minutes or so. They were clearly lacking firepower upfront but the manager John Toshack resisted calls from the crowd to put on an extra attacker. In these final stages it was Russia that looked more likely to get another goal. Finally, in injury time, a comical mix-up in the Welsh defence led to a third for Russia, from Roman Pavlyuchenko.
Overall, I think the score flattered Russia quite a lot. They weren’t as good as I had expected them to be and Wales weren’t as anywhere near as bad as I’d feared. Russia will definitely have to play a lot better than that if they’re going to make any impression at all in South Africa. Wales, on the other hand, should be reasonably pleased with the way they played for most of the game, given the number of inexperienced players in their side.
No doubt, though, that Russia deserved to win.
You can find a fuller report of the match here.