Wales took a serious option on qualification for the 2004 European Championship by holding Russia to a goalless draw in the first leg of their play-off here last night.
The result was all the more impressive because the Welsh arrived at Lokomotiv Moscow's wonderful new stadium knowing that the odds were stacked against them. Indeed, Russia's record of having lost only one competitive match in Moscow - a 1999 defeat by the then defending world champions France in a Euro 2000 qualifier - is second to none. Wales may not have broken that spell but they will surely view this hard-fought draw as a moral victory.
"I was very pleased with the performance," their manager Mark Hughes said. "Our energy levels were high for the entire 90 minutes and we restricted the Russians to very few scoring chances. It's been a great night for Welsh football."
Russia felt the home leg offered them the ideal opportunity to take control of the tie, which explains why they were so disappointed with the stalemate. "Wales impressed me," their manager Georgi Yartsev said, "but we did not play well enough. This was a bad result for us."
True, but they will still present a threat in Cardiff. One need only look at recent Champions' League results to see that goalless first legs do not always favour the home team for the return match. "I know it's boring," Hughes said, "but it really is only half-time. There is still a lot of work to do before tickets can be booked for next summer's tournament."
All week, the Russians had hoped for the worse possible conditions and, right on cue, snow started falling 90 minutes before kick-off. The flakes did not settle, but the shower did lower the already freezing temperatures. At least the pitch was more inviting, though this was never going to be a day for pretty, attacking Welsh football. Hughes' 4-1-4-1 starting line-up confirmed as much.
The captain, Gary Speed, was moved up from left-back to shore up a midfield that weakened by the absences of Simon Davies and Mark Pembridge, while Cardiff's pacey forward Robert Earnshaw was left on the bench in favour of the more defensive-minded Andy Johnson.
Russia, meanwhile, decided to draw inspiration from their hosts for the day Lokomotiv Moscow, a club that destroyed Internazionale 3-0 in the Champions' League at the same ground last month. Yartsev opted for a 4-4-2 formation, although Dmitri Loskov was effectively acting as a third forward alongside the other two Dmitris, Sichev and Bulikin.
Every Russian player had been promised a £700,000 qualification bonus, and the incentive seemed to be working early on, as the home side pushed forward looking for an early goal. Alexei Smertin, who is on a season-long loan with Portsmouth following his £3.45m summer transfer from Bordeaux to Chelsea, was particularly impressive in the opening exchanges, linking midfield and attack with great aplomb. And it was the 28-year-old who created the first chance of the match when he released Bulikin in the Welsh box after 13 minutes. The Dynamo Moscow striker took one touch before firing a low, right-foot shot just wide of Paul Jones' far post.
Wales might have been allowing their opponents too much of the ball, but at least they were standing firm. There were plenty of minor scares in the first half, most notably when Danny Gabbidon escaped punishment after bringing Sitchev down in the box on 36 minutes, but the truth is that Jones was hardly ever called upon. Then, the one time the Southampton goalkeeper was stretched, following Smertin's terrific dipping volley from the edge of the D seven minutes before half-time, he tipped the ball over the bar.
As the players trotted off at half-time, the Russian goalkeeper Sergei Ovchinnikov was booked for berating the referee, petulance that will see him miss the vital second leg at the Millennium Stadium on Wednesday. His absence will mean a promotion for Viacheslav Malafeev, a keeper known for his vulnerabilities. Alexander Mostovoi, who picked up a second-half caution, will also sit out the return match.
Frustration was growing among home players and supporters alike, and the longer the game wore on the more the histrionics grew. As it became clear that the Welsh were going to be difficult to break down, Russian players looked for free-kicks at every opportunity. If the visitors were not best pleased with those tactics, they were particularly incensed by Vadim Evseev's tackle on Ryan Giggs.
"It was a disgrace," Hughes said, "but thankfully I think Ryan will be all right for Wednesday." The crowd, too, grew restless. Having thrown toilet rolls on to the pitch for the first hour, they suddenly found bottles and flares to use as projectiles in the final 30 minutes. "It was all a bit scary," Speed said. "But, in a way, it made us even more determined, and I thought we more than deserved the draw."
The defence was particularly solid, with Gabbidon, a player who plies his trade in the First Division, standing out. Another defensive performance like this one in three days would almost certainly see Wales through to their first major tournament since 1958.
Russia 0 Wales 0
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