In the end, Wales’ destiny was decided not in Cardiff, but 1,200 miles away in Zagreb. For 35 minutes, they dared to dream. They could imagine the virtual table, showing them ahead of Croatia, propelling them to Euro 2024. Yet by the end of the night, Wales had lost a lead against Turkey and, more pertinently, Croatia had gained one against Armenia. Ante Budimir’s goal for Croatia condemned Wales to the play-offs, regardless of their own result.
Which, as it happened, was a draw. It probably ought to have been a victory, both in terms of Wales’ performance and the manner in which Turkey levelled, with a distinctly dubious penalty. But in a sense, it was an irrelevant one: Wales’ fate was not in their own hands. They had required a favour, needing an Armenia side ranked 95th in the world to get a result against the World Cup semi-finalists. And while Armenia have exerted a huge impact on Group D, it was only as Wales’ nemesis, by holding them in Yerevan on Saturday and, crucially, winning in Cardiff in June. A draw against Turkey was far more forgivable: if Wales had played with this verve throughout a decidedly mixed campaign, they would surely have secured one of the top two spots.
Salvation – courtesy of Uefa and the byzantine workings of their baffling formula – could come from failure, with a play-off place that stems from a Nations League group where Wales drew one and lost five of six games.
If that defies logic, they now have Finland, Iceland or Ukraine in a semi-final in March, with a final then to negotiate. If they are to get to Germany for Euro 2024, they will have taken the long route and done it the hard way. That, some would say, is the Welsh way: few things have come easily to them over the years.
Their tales of misfortune have been pockmarked by infamous decisions and the Slovenian referee Matej Jug awarded Turkey the most generous of penalties, Yusuf Yazici rolling it in after Ben Davies was adjudged to have nudged the substitute Kenan Yildiz over. Wales could feel doubly aggrieved: Jug had been rather less receptive to their own penalty appeals, including a clumsy push by Samet Akaydin on Brennan Johnson. The same defender’s challenge on the Tottenham forward did not yield a spot kick either. Ultimately, Yazici’s leveller only altered the equation for Turkey, the point meaning they won the group, but it left a sour taste for Wales.
Because they were terrific. Neco Williams was a worthy scorer, a dynamic force on the left as Wales forever looked to switch play to him. Harry Wilson was influential and impressive. Johnson had one of his best games in a Wales shirt: twice denied a penalty, he twice came close to a goal, with a shot that Altay Bayindir tipped wide and a dinked finish that was chalked off because he was offside.
But Wales required a performance and got one. A side who were subdued on Saturday were roused. There was a spine-tingling Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau before kick-off. Suitably inspired, a stirring display followed. There was a boldness to Wales’ start. Turkey had beaten Germany in Berlin but Wales attacked them from the off. Slow starters in Yerevan, they brimmed with speed on home soil. Page had added energy to his attack, bringing in Johnson and Nathan Broadhead. The Ipswich winger came close to a fourth-minute opener. Wales instead led after seven.
Wilson’s perceptive pass allowed Williams the chance to burst forward. The wing-back cut inside, placed a shot past Ugurcan Cakir and Wales believed. This, it seemed, could be a worthy sequel to October’s win over Croatia. Johnson’s eager bursts into the channels showed what he offers, and the dropped and totemic Kieffer Moore cannot. Ethan Ampadu, who could have doubled the lead with a header when unmarked, was another to flourish.
Their qualification already assured, Turkey had less need to excel. Yet they were initially insipid in the face of the Welsh verve. By the start of the second half, Vincenzo Montella had made three changes, only one seemingly enforced by injury. That effected an improvement: one replacement won the penalty and another scored it. Yusuf San, one of the starters, then clipped the bar from long range and belatedly, Turkey showed their quality. Their fractiousness, too: a total of nine yellow cards and a melee after the final whistle were indications of a certain needless niggly streak.
But Montella can argue his side, who have won in Croatia and Germany, have steel. The Italian extended his unbeaten start as Turkey manager, but only after surviving a Welsh onslaught. They had to hope that it would be combined with an Armenia equaliser. Ultimately, Wales got neither of the goals they needed: not in Cardiff and not in Zagreb. And now, for the first time since Euro 2012, there may be a European Championships without them.