Losers will be out of contention for Russia event, while winners will keep alive hopes of qualification
Wales v Ireland: This World Cup qualifier will be fast, furious and feisty
Perhaps it was not the most eloquent way of quantifying the size of a qualifier. Perhaps, considering it is only 15 months since the Euro 2016 semi-finals, it was not the most accurate. Nevertheless, Chris Coleman reflected: “It’s as big as anything.”
Lose to the Republic of Ireland on Monday night and Wales’s hopes of reaching a first World Cup since 1958 will be over. Win and the Irish’s chances end. It is an eliminator for one.
A win could send either directly to Russia. Yet Group D leaders Serbia are in pole position and at home to Georgia. In reality, this is a private battle for second place. A victory is necessary to guarantee a play-off place.
Wales seem to be relishing the pressure.
“I’ve sat here before,” Coleman added. “We’ve been involved in knockout football before and we’ve been good at coming through.”
They have actually been playing knockout football for much of the group stage. Their campaign has been an exercise in brinkmanship. They drew their way into difficulty. They may now win their way out of it.
“We’ve got no divine right to be running away with groups,” cautioned Chris Gunter, the most-capped player in their squad.
Wales have not done that. But they have acquired a focus as the group has progressed. “We have to take care of business, do the things we know we’re good at,” said manager Coleman. “This is their time and they are doing a great job.”
Neighbours can seem opposites. Wales won only one of their first six qualifiers. Ireland won three of the opening four. Then their campaign stalled while Wales accelerated past them in the standings.
The momentum shift between the local rivals arguably came in March. Neil Taylor flew into a shocking challenge on Seamus Coleman. The Wales left-back was rightly sent off. The Ireland right-back has not played since.
“It’s a horrible situation for Seamus,” said his namesake, the Wales manager. “But for us, it won’t be a mention.”
But since then, Wales have claimed 10 points and Ireland five. Minus the suspended Taylor, Wales drew 1-1 away at group leaders Serbia. They have won their last three games without conceding. Ireland’s only subsequent victory has been at home against bottom side Moldova.
“We’re a small nation with a good team in a good position,” said Coleman, the son of a Dubliner.
Smaller nations can often lack strength in depth. Now their destinies may depend upon it. This could be seen as the derby of the depleted.
While Ireland welcome back Robbie Brady and James McClean after bans, they are still without the injured Seamus Coleman and Jonathan Walters. Wales will miss the sidelined Gareth Bale, though perhaps not as much as expected. Friday’s victory in Georgia was a first triumph without their talisman for four years.
“I heard someone say we’re 10 men behind the ball with Bale up front,” Coleman added. “It’s a lazy comment.” Because a theme of both teams has been the way that understudies have excelled.
The 17-year-old youngster Ben Woodburn came off the bench to score a winner in Austria and set up the opener against Moldova. Derby’s Tom Lawrence, starting in Bale’s stead, scored the only goal in Georgia. Daryl Murphy, Ireland’s veteran forward, had only scored once in his first 26 caps. He added two more goals in 19 minutes on Friday.
More reserves may be required. Wales have eight players who are a booking away from missing the play-off first leg.
“I won’t expect any of our players will hold back,” their manager said.
It should be fast, furious, feisty and, for one, final. One road to Russia ends in Cardiff.