Wales 1 Ukraine 1

Wales v Ukraine, World Cup qualifier, Llanelli

Wales v Ukraine, World Cup qualifier, LlanelliThe Welsh women’s team wasted a wonderful chance to enhance their World Cup qualification hopes in this fitfully entertaining draw.

An equaliser in the 78th minute from the home side’s best player Natasha Harding clawed back a point after Wales showed a lack of wit and trickery.

A win would have opened up a headlong charge for the top spot, with group favourites England to be hosted in August and the result seemed like a missed opportunity.

Strangely, the tone seemed set in the warm-up. In front of fans in the main stand and using a narrow strip, a 30-yard long rectangle, Welsh players practised possession drills. What was noticeable was the variable first touch and penchant for a long pass to the opposite end.

The tactic, and sometimes, the first touches, were replicated in the first half when long balls to Harding, the Bristol Academy striker, were played in behind defenders for her to chase.

She regularly won the race but was often isolated as her team-mates struggled to reach dangerous positions to make the tactic pay.

Wales v Ukraine, Llanelli, World Cup 2105 qualifier
Wales warm up before the 2015 World Cup qualifier against Ukraine – click to enlarge

Wales suffered a setback as early in the sixth minute, the lithe Pekur strolling past right back Nicola Cousins to put in a clever cross that eluded Welsh keeper Nicola Davies, with Olga Boychenko bending low to head in from six yards.

A great shout for a Welsh penalty was turned down when Harding looked clean through on goal only to be felled by the visiting keeper. The French ref gave nothing.

Wales relied mainly on this unsubtle ‘hoofball’, glimpsed in the warm-up, throughout the game. Balls usually whacked into the channels where the impressively indefatigable Harding would win the chase.

But often passes went wildly astray and first touch – on a decent surface – was not good enough. The tempo slowed as control was established and the Welsh build-up often seemed laboured and ponderous, the ball shuttling across the back four as one flank was explored for an opening and then the other.

The Ukrainians’ touch was better and their technical skill and pace slightly superior. They boasted at least four long-legged Olive Oyl lookalikes and a couple had blistering pace.

The produced the move of the game in the 37th minute, capitalising on a Welsh mistake to swarm down the right, the ball being played in to Apaneschenko who spanked it first time from 30 yards towards the top left hand corner. Davies made a great save to push it wide.

That would have been game over.

They settled for sitting on their lead in the second half and Wales were lucky to get back into this one.

Both of the best Welsh chances in front of goal – aside from the penalty shout – were created by the Ukrainians failing to clear properly while under no pressure.

After 78 minutes, a poor pass out of defence was intercepted, played in to Harding and she struck it into the right corner.

I got the impression the greater playing experience of the Welsh side was a key factor in the comeback from 1-0.

Wales v Ukraine, 2015 World Cup qualifier
Skipper Jess Fishlock leads the Welsh team out

A tactical change helped as the impressive Bleazard was moved from left back to right midfield to make use of her crossing ability, as Wales went to three at the back.

But Wiltshire on the left side of midfield was totally ineffective for most of the second half, after a decent first half and, posing no threat, should have come off – as it was, Welsh coach Jarno Matikainen made only one substitution , with just five minutes to go.

There was a strong whiff of pre-programming. It seemed the side weren’t encouraged to think for themselves – it would have been interesting to see more play go through the Welsh skipper Jess Fishlock, for instance, whose class and extraordinary heading ability for such a short player is impressive.

In the second half five corners were taken in 15 minutes – one being headed over from three yards.

Wales v Ukraine, 2015 World Cup qualifier
Mural near Parc y Sgarlets

All were hit long towards the far post when a short Ukrainian was guarding the near post. Then, with two minutes to go, Wales took an age to take a free-kick in a dangerous position.

Three Welsh defenders were  in the centre circle, marking what must have been a very dangerous-looking blade of grass, or the centre spot.

They looked to the bench for permission to go up for the free-kick. When a World Cup win is at stake at a key moment seemed a no-brainer, hey, the centre spot isn’t going to race off to score a breakaway.

Wales looked a bit formulaic, maybe lacking a bit of intelligence to do something surprising – this came as a shock after an impressive 5-1 in Turkey last week.

But it was good to see the side playing at another good venue, after September’s outing at the CCS in Cardiff.

For those of us who’ve only watched men’s soccer, women’s football is a surprising contrast and maybe an insight into the role testosterone plays in the male game. There is very little cynical upending or shoving in the back of the neck to win headers.

The refs seem to miss a lot or decide not to punish as severely in the men’s game. Perhaps they don’t want to be unpopular. There are lot more unforced errors that would spark catcalling and anger in a male crowd.

But all that means that the games can be free-flowing, eventful and, at times though not in this match, enjoyably skilful.

The last ten minutes were riveting as Wales had a good go at grabbing a win which would have set them up for at least second place in the group – four of the best second-placed sides will contest play-offs from which one side will emerge to contest the World Cup in Canada next year.

Next up, it’s Montenegro at Bangor on Thursday, May 8. With England beating them 9-0 last week, there should be goals.

Let’s hope it’s us who score them.

Wales: N Davies (Reading) Cousins (Cardiff), Bleazard (Yeovil), K Davies (Millwall), Ingle (Bristol), James (Bristol), Dykes (Bristol), Ladd (Coventry), Harding (Bristol), Fishlock (Seattle), Wiltshire (Watford). Sub: Lawrence (IBV Vestmannaeyjar) for Bleazard, 86th minute.


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