Wales 0-0 Republic of Ireland
Let’s just say the action, drama and sense of occasion will be infinitely more riveting when Cardiff City kick off their home Premier League campaign against Manchester City at this very venue on Sunday week!
As international friendlies go, this was one of the more instantly forgettable ones, Chris Coleman’s Wales fighting out a dour, drab scoreless draw against Ireland on a night when scoring chances were at an absolute premium.
When Malky Mackay’s men do battle with the Man City Galacticos in front of a sell-out 27,000 crowd here, we can expect the thrills, spills and goalmouth action which was sorely missing last night.
But at least in securing this stalemate, Wales put an end to perhaps the most incredible run in world international football.
Before this blank, they had not drawn a single match since John Toshack’s Class of October 2007 grabbed a 0-0 European Championship qualifying share of the spoils against Germany in Frankfurt.
Astonishingly, in the intervening six years, Wales either won or lost every one of their next 46 matches, whether Toshack, Brian Flynn, Gary Speed or Coleman was in charge.
For the record, of those 46 games, Wales won 19 and lost 27. At least that sequence, one of the most bizarre in Welsh history, has finally come to a halt.
It’s a statement of the obvious, I guess, but how Coleman and the sparse crowd present inside the home of the Bluebirds last night must have been wishing Gareth Bale was playing, rather than sitting in the dugout.
Without his swashbuckling brilliance, and the clever midfield probing and prompting of Aaron Ramsey, Wales never looked capable of winning this encounter against an organised, rugged and hard-working Irish team. But they did at least keep their first clean sheet under Coleman, something of a plus, I guess.
For Coleman, talking positively about signing a new contract and carrying on as Wales boss, this was something of a new beginning, the start of the countdown towards the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign which will kick off around this time next year.
He had this game against Ireland, plus four looming World Cup qualifiers and any other odd friendly to be arranged, to bed in his team for those Euros when Coleman knows Wales have to hit the ground running for a change when it really matters.
Last night’s result didn’t, of course, but the manner of Wales’ lacklustre performance from the start underlines that they simply cannot afford to be without talisman Bale for any match, friendly or competitive. Nor Ramsey, the team’s midfield architect, for that matter.
In the absence of those two, the creative onus against the Irish very much fell upon the young shoulders of young Crystal Palace starlet Jonny Williams and old warhorse Craig Bellamy. But it’s unfair to expect too much too soon from Williams, even if some Welsh fans dub him ‘Joniesta’ because of his silky balance and flair, while Bellamy just doesn’t look right in a lone striker role for his country, lacking the penalty box presence to trouble the Irish.
Bellamy would have been better utilised in his club position out wide, where he could at least have used his pace and direct running to get to the byline and create openings for a bigger out-and-out centre forward.
But Coleman does seem to want Bellamy as his main striker at the moment, so I guess we’re just going to have to get accustomed to it until he calls it a day as a Wales player, as expected, this autumn.
Williams, at least, attempted to get Wales on the front foot, busy and purposeful as he drove towards the Irish defence in a bid to carve out chances, but for the first 45 minutes it just wasn’t happening for either him or his team.
It’s some time since we’ve witnessed such a lacklustre first-half display from Wales and it took fully 35 minutes for them to have their first meaningful attempt on goal, Williams picking the ball up 30 yards out and rifling a shot wide of Keiren Westwood’s left-hand post.
Right on half-time a better opportunity fell the way of Ben Davies, advancing forward to latch onto a loose ball from a Bellamy corner, but only serving to also drill his effort wide.
Not that the Irish were any better, also lacking any sort of a cutting edge in what was turning out to be a turgid encounter. Glenn Whelan, Jonathan Walters and Robbie Brady drilled half-chances wide, while the best opportunity was spurned by West Brom marksman Shane Long, who blazed over when indecision in the Welsh defence gave him a clear sight at goal.
It was hard at this stage to see where a goal was going to come from for either team.
And perhaps the loudest cheer of the night was the one of ‘Scotland, Scotland, Scotland’ midway through the half, the sparse crowd celebrating the news filtering through to Cardiff City Stadium that James Morrison had given Gordon Strachan’s men the lead in their own friendly international against England at Wembley.
The inevitable raft of second-half substitutions was only going to make the flow of the game worse, rather than better, although at least Bellamy did his bit to try to break the stalemate before predictably becoming the first of many Welsh players to be taken off.
His moment almost came 10 minutes after the interval, Bellamy driving a 30-yard free-kick over the Irish wall and at least managing to trouble Westwood for the first time in the match, the goalkeeper forced to spring smartly to his right to keep out the effort.
Shortly afterwards Bellamy was replaced by Sam Vokes, his legs kept fresh for the rather more important matter of Cardiff City’s first Premier League match at West Ham this weekend when important points will be at stake.
Joe Ledley and Hal Robson Kanu were others to make way early on, Andy King and Neil Taylor coming into Coleman’s team.
It was unfamiliar territory for left-back Taylor, stuck out on the left wing and expected to make things happen offensively, but he was merely happy to pull on a Welsh jersey again for the first time in a year, having finally overcome the horror ankle injury which has thus far ruled him out of the entire World Cup campaign.
Williams continued to be busy for Wales, but the truth is Ireland had by far the best of the rare second-half openings as the match petered out towards its 0-0 stalemate.
That Wales finished unbeaten was down to two splendid second-half stops by Boaz Myhill in goal and a brilliant Ashley Williams block from a James McClean effort near the end.
But, while they were below par on the night, Wales certainly didn’t deserve to lose the game. Honours even for the first time in six years, roll on the next international… and the return of a certain number 11 in the Welsh team.
Roll on, too, the first Premier League match in the Welsh capital in 10 days’ time. That will be rip-roaring.