Exciting times ahead for Wales despite falling at final hurdle in Euro 2024 play-offs


Exciting times ahead for Wales despite falling at final hurdle in Euro 2024 play-offs

Wales captain Ben Davies applauding the home support
Wales captain Ben Davies applauding the home supportAFP
Wales suffered a gut-wrenching penalty shootout defeat to Poland on Tuesday evening, ending their hopes of a third consecutive appearance at the European Championship finals.

A collective groan echoed around Wales when Wojciech Szczesny dived to his right to save Daniel James' decisive spot-kick. It was a bitter pill to swallow for Rob Page's weary side, but not one that should define Wales' latest crop of emerging youngsters. 

Group stage struggles

Page’s men started their qualifying campaign with an impressive point in Split after Nathan Broadhead’s last-gasp strike rescued a point against Group D favourites Croatia. A narrow home victory over Latvia followed three days later, giving Wales the perfect platform to kick on. 

However, any momentum created from the opening two matches was soon decimated after a shock defeat on home soil against Armenia. It was Wales’ first loss in a home European Championship qualifier since 2011. 

Kieffer Moore saw red late on in that match, and the Dragons’ indiscipline cost them once again in their next qualifier, with Wales falling 2-0 to Turkey after Joe Morrell’s first-half dismissal. 

A positive response was desperately needed, and Wales showed their resilience with a scrappy 2-0 win in Riga before conjuring up a monumental performance to battle past Croatia

Remarkably, that handed the initiative to Page’s side: two wins from their final two matches against Armenia and Turkey would be enough to secure a top-two spot and automatic qualification for this summer’s tournament. 

It ultimately proved a step too far though, as Wales followed up a lacklustre draw in Armenia with another stalemate against Turkey in their final group game - a disappointing end to a topsy-turvy campaign. 

Play-off heartbreak 

Having flattered to deceive at times during the group stage, even the most optimistic Wales supporter knew it would be a tough ask for the Dragons to navigate their way through the play-offs. 

However, a favourable draw handed them a home tie against Finland in the semi-finals, as well as home advantage over either Poland or Estonia in a potential one-game shootout.

Buoyed by the prospect of playing both matches in front of their own fans, Wales wasted no time in asserting their authority on Thursday's semi-final clash, taking the lead inside three minutes thanks to David Brooks' well-taken finish.

That early breakthrough set the tone for a pulsating performance from the hosts, with Neco Williams' superb free-kick and second-half goals from Brennan Johnson and James sealing a convincing 4-1 win. 

The last remaining hurdle standing between Wales and a third consecutive appearance at the European Championship finals was Poland, a side who were equally ruthless in their 5-1 demolition of Estonia

Unsurprisingly, given the stakes, Tuesday's match was a scrappy affair, with both defences holding firm across a gruelling 120 minutes of football.

It all came down to the lottery of a penalty shootout, and after the first nine spot-kicks were all confidently converted, James saw his penalty parried away by Wojciech Szczesny giving Poland the victory by the narrowest of margins. 

Having invested so much of their energy and emotion into the tie, it was a cruel conclusion to Wales' roller-coaster pursuit of Euro 2024 qualification. 

Bright future ahead

When Gareth Bale announced his retirement from the sport following the 2022 World Cup, it marked the end of a historic chapter for Welsh football.

A nation starved of success for so long on the international stage had been allowed to dream again, with Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Ashley Williams leading the Dragons to the semi-finals at Euro 2016.

Fast forward eight years and only Ramsey, Ben Davies and Danny Ward remain from that history-making squad, as a new generation of players look to carry the torch held so admirably by their predecessors.

Chris Mepham, Joe Rodon and Williams have joined Davies in the backline, while Ethan Ampadu, Harry Wilson and Brooks are mainstays in midfield. 

At the top end of the pitch, Johnson and James provide plenty of speed and attacking intent from out wide, allowing the likes of Moore and Broadhead to occupy defenders in a more central position. 

Tuesday's shootout defeat against Poland was a harsh reality check for Wales' new guard, but given the spirit and resilience they showed during the entire campaign, there's no reason why they can't learn from the experience and use their pain as a source of motivation moving forward.

It remains to be seen whether Page will keep his job in the aftermath of the result. His 43-game tenure has provided some remarkable highs, most notably a famous win over Ukraine in June 2022 to secure Wales' first appearance at a World Cup finals since 1958. 

However, it hasn't always been plain sailing for Page. There have also been a number of costly defeats along the way, with many supporters critical of his tactics and in-game management.

That uncertainty among the fanbase might ultimately prove decisive, but irrespective of who's tasked with leading Wales into the next round of World Cup qualifiers, they will have a group of players capable of achieving something very special. 


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