Football: Welsh fall at the final hurdle

Belarus Under-21 1 Wales Under-21 0
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The Independent Online
A BRAVE defensive display from Wales was wrecked by a goal two minutes into injury-time here yesterday.

The Welsh Under-21 side deserved a point in this European Championship qualifier for their sterling efforts, but, in stoppage time, the Belarus winger Vitaly Lanko fired in a shot that the goalkeeper Anthony Williams managed to get a hand to but could not stop from crossing the line.

Earlier, Williams had once again come to Wales' rescue in his 15th appearance at this level. The Blackburn goalkeeper has made a habit of saving penalties in this European Championship group, four in all before this match - two each in successive games against Denmark and Italy - and he took his tally to five when he plunged to his left to beat out a 16th-minute spot-kick from Mikhail Makouski after Danny Gabbidon had brought down Sergei Koualchuk.

The new coach Jimmy Shoulder can be pleased with the battling display of his new charges. They were under intense pressure for long periods but refused to buckle until the last desperate minutes and the captain Lee Jarman and Gabbidon enjoyed excellent performances. Wolves' versatile Ryan Green played in central midfield and was also outstanding, chasing and covering as waves of Belarus attacks rained down.

Wigan's Simon Haworth played a lone role up front and was largely starved of the sort of accurate aerial service he thrives on. He had the best Welsh chance in the first half when he won possession from three defenders before back-heeling a clever effort inches wide of the post. But it was Williams who caught the eye.

Currently on loan to Gillingham, he saved an early shot from Maksui Razumau and then after Makouski blazed over the crossbar from 20 yards, Williams had to save again from Roman Trepachkin. He continued to make a string of fine saves and, in the dying moments, he blocked Lanko when he was clear. But the winger had the last word with the winning goal, leaving Wales with only 30 seconds to play after the restart.

The Scotland Under-21 coach Alex Smith, whose side take on Bosnia in Lukavac today, admits he is concerned about the flow of talent from his squad to the senior level.

Smith feels there is a significant gulf between the Under-21s and the full ranks, and he believes that could be eased by the re-introduction of Under-23 internationals.

Rangers' Barry Ferguson is one example of a player promoted early to the full Scotland squad, but Smith is concerned that too many lose their way after Under-21 call-ups. "There is a gap when players finish playing the Under-21s and sometimes it's three or four years before they reappear at international level and we need to try and shorten that a little bit," Smith said. "We need more like Christian Dailly, Callum Davidson and Barry Ferguson who made the transition almost immediately and that's what we've got to try and do.

"There has been a lot of talk about an Under-23s level being introduced and I think that would be a very good idea, but it's just the whole cost of that exercise. I think it would be a benefit to have a Under-23s competition, but we can actually short circuit that if we manage to get the players through that bit earlier for the national side."

Having lost his post as assistant manager at Raith Rovers during the summer, Smith has been consoled by being given the scope to travel around the country assessing young players. His role at Stark's Park meant he was forced to rely heavily on scouts for information, but now, with the added advantage of Scotland's Under-21 League switching to Monday nights, Smith is better placed.

"At some of the smaller clubs the young players are getting a chance earlier," he said.

BELARUS UNDER-21: Khomutovski, Docgoulevets, Tchelesinski, Balin, Koualtchouk, Trepatchikin (Afanasenka, 78), Denisiyuk, Makovski (Tchalei, 65), Leontchik, Razumov, Lanko. Substitutes not used: Herasillovich, Lodzis, Loukashevitch, Kalochou, Baranov.

WALES UNDER-21: A Williams, Price, Jenkins, Gabbidon, Jarman, Green, A Williams, D Williams (S Roberts, 68), Haworth, Jeanne, Llewellyn (Thomas, 78). Substitutes not used: Gibson, Earnshaw, C Roberts, Kendall.