Speed too late to save Wales

World Cup 2002: Mark Hughes' men are undermined by Bellamy sending-off and blunder by goalkeeper
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The Independent Football

Wales failed to complete a hat-trick of wins over Belarus as their World Cup qualifying campaign began disastrously in Minsk yesterday.

Wales failed to complete a hat-trick of wins over Belarus as their World Cup qualifying campaign began disastrously in Minsk yesterday.

A mistake by the goalkeeper Paul Jones just before the break gave Belarus the lead and a spirited Welsh fightback was thwarted when Alexander Khatskevich set up Valentin Belkevich for what turned out to be the winner in the 55th minute.

Wales were reduced to 10 men when the £6.5m Coventry City striker Craig Bellamy was sent off for retaliation midway through the second half before Gary Speed threw the Welsh a lifeline in the second minute of injury time. Robbie Savage's 35-yard free-kick was superbly headed home from 10 yards by the skipper but it was too little, too late.

The record books favoured a Welsh win. Two years ago under Bobby Gould, Wales beat Belarus 3-2 in Cardiff and then 12 months ago almost to the day, a rare Ryan Giggs header produced a 2-1 win in Minsk in Mark Hughes's first game as caretaker manager.

As usual, Wales had their share of injury withdrawals and lost the Wimbledon striker John Hartson when his proposed £5.5m move to Rangers collapsed when he failed a medical on Thursday.

In Hartson's absence and with Nathan Blake still nursing an ankle injury, Hughes decided to revive the former Norwich strike force of Bellamy and Iwan Roberts.

Without Mark Pembridge and Matthew Jones, Giggs played in a four-man midfield alongside skipper Speed, Robbie Savage and John Robinson.

Jones, despite being dropped by Southampton last week, returned in goal after injury in front of a First Division back four of Robert Page, Andrew Melville, Chris Coleman and Gareth Roberts.

Wales were under pressure from the third minute when Sergei Gurenko made ground down the right and Page had to head his cross behind for a corner. Four minutes later, after being fouled on the left, Giggs fired in a free-kick which Speed almost reached at the far post.

After Maxim Romashchenko had shot over, Wales had a lucky escape after 15 minutes. Belkevich was put through on the Belarus left and his mishit shot beat Jones but not Melville who cleared off the line with Page eventually conceding a corner.

Belarus dominated possession with the Welsh being forced to attack on the break. Midway through the half, Giggs ran at their defence and when his pull-back was not cleared properly, the ball fell to Speed whose shot from just inside the area was deflected for a corner.

Ten minutes before the break, Roman Vasilyuk ran the Welsh defence ragged before firing in a low left-foot shot straight at Jones who five minutes later gifted Belarus the opening goal. The Southampton keeper seemed to have Radislav Orlovsky's cross covered but it slipped from his hands to allow Khatskevich to head into an empty net.

Hughes pushed Giggs forward to join Bellamy and Roberts up front and five minutes into the second half, Roberts wasted a good opportunity by heading over a Giggs cross from six yards. Roberts returned the compliment by knocking the ball down for the Manchester United winger but his right foot shot was deflected for a corner.

Eleven minutes into the second half, Belarus moved further ahead. Having scored the first, Khatskevich set up the second for his Dinamo Kiev team-mate Belkevich, who skipped between Gareth Roberts and Melville to slot home a low right-foot shot from just inside the box.

Wales responded well. Savage bought a fine save from Gennady Tumilovich and then a minute later the keeper turned away Melville's header from the resultant corner.

Nikolai Ryndyuk then saw his 10-yard shot apparently saved by the hand of Gareth Roberts but the referee inexplicably awarded a corner.

Welsh misery was compounded in the 56th minute, when Bellamy was sent off for retaliation.