A depleted Wales side beat the Republic of Ireland as Harry Wilson’s beautiful free-kick illuminated an otherwise lifeless Nations League match in Dublin.
Without Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, the visitors were a pale imitation of the team that hammered the Republic 4-1 in Cardiff last month.
But the hosts were no better, mustering only a couple of efforts on goal before Wilson stroked a 20-yard free-kick into the top corner in the second half.
Wales squandered chances to extend their lead but wayward finishing from the likes of Tom Lawrence and James Chester mattered little as Ryan Giggs’ side recorded a second win from three Nations League games.
For the Republic, meanwhile, a fourth match without victory made for a despondent atmosphere among the home fans at the Aviva Stadium.
Wilson eases Wales’ worries
Wales comprehensively outplayed the Republic in Cardiff a month ago, but four key protagonists in that 4-1 victory – scorers Bale and Ramsey, man of the match Ethan Ampadu and Chris Mepham – were unavailable in Dublin.
Bale and Ramsey’s absence was particularly noteworthy, as this was the first time Wales had played a competitive fixture without their two leading players since Ramsey’s debut in 2008.
Giggs’ response was bold, handing first starts to teenage Leeds striker Tyler Roberts and 18-year-old midfielder Matt Smith, on loan at Dutch side Twente from Manchester City.
There was a scare for Smith after just nine minutes, as he was dispossessed on the edge of the area by Cyrus Christie, but the Irishman’s low shot was well saved by Wayne Hennessey.
That was as exciting as the first half got.
Whereas Wales dazzled last month, they laboured at a walking pace here.
That left Roberts isolated up front, while those in attacking midfield positions – David Brooks, Wilson and Lawrence – worked hard but struggled to impose themselves on the game.
That was until the 58th minute when Wilson – who scored a spectacular long-range free-kick for Derby at Manchester United last month – struck in front of the jubilant Wales fans.
The noisy travelling contingent would have had further reason to celebrate had Lawrence and Chester done better with their promising chances, but victory now sets up an intriguing match with Denmark in Cardiff next month which will decide the winner of Group B4.
Pressure mounts on O’Neill
September’s thrashing by Wales and Saturday’s goalless draw with Denmark represented an uninspiring start to this Nations League campaign for the Republic.
It was only in January that their manager Martin O’Neill signed a new contract, but dreary recent performances and the apparent stagnation of this group of players has drawn criticism from the country’s media and fans.
Chief among their gripes has been the side’s alleged lack of attacking ambition, a claim supported by the fact they had scored only five goals in their previous eight matches.
There was little to allay those concerns here, with the Republic’s two efforts on target in the first half coming from a Welsh mistake and a set-piece.
They were at least defensively solid, even if that did owe much to Wales’ incoherence in attack.
But once Wilson put the visitors ahead, the Republic showed no signs of recovering.
Denmark midfielder Thomas Delaney described the Irish approach as “primitive” after Saturday’s draw, and there was nothing here to suggest O’Neill and his players will be evolving any time soon.
Man of the match – Harry Wilson (Wales)
‘He does it all the time in training’ – What they said
Wales manager Ryan Giggs on Sky Sports: “I’m so proud – they dug in right to the end. It was a really brilliant second-half performance.
“The determination pleased me, to not give a goal away. I said on Thursday that we didn’t do the basics against Spain but we did today. We were led by the captain. Ashley Williams was outstanding for 90 minutes.
“He defended, did the hard stuff which gave us the platform to go on. Harry Wilson, I fined him for the goal at Old Trafford a few weeks ago, I won’t be tonight! He does it all the time in training: it’s practice, practice, practice.
“We set out to win the group. It’s a tough group and now it is in our hands.”
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill said: “I felt we should have scored early on, and we are not renowned for scoring a lot of goals so we need to take our chances.
“It was a grandstand finish and I thought we could have got something, but I thought there were a lot of positives despite the result.
“They have a great spirit, we lack a little bit of technical ability. We have spirit in abundance but that won’t take you everywhere. We need to be more creative if we can.”
Giggs emulates England record – the stats
- The Republic of Ireland have lost back-to-back matches against Wales for the first time since they lost their opening four meetings with the Dragons, a run ending back in 1986.
- Wales have beaten the Republic away from home for the first time since February 1992 under manager Terry Yorath, while it is also the Dragons’ first ever competitive victory in Dublin against the Irish.
- The Republic have won just one of their past seven home competitive matches (D3 L3).
- Ryan Giggs is the first Wales manager to win his first two matches against the Irish since Mike England did so back in 1986.
- Harry Wilson is the first Welshman to score a direct free-kick goal in a competitive match since Gareth Bale’s strike against England during Euro 2016.
The Republic of Ireland host Northern Ireland in a friendly on 15 November (19:45 GMT), while Wales play Denmark in their final Nations League match in Group B4 at the Cardiff City Stadium on 16 November (19:45 GMT).