It is a tournament that has prompted plenty of head-scratching, but the final standings in Nations League Group B4 present Wales with two quite simple truths: they are better, currently, than Ireland. They are not better than Denmark.
Wales beat Ireland twice – 4-1, in breezy fashion; 1-0, with gritted teeth – but lost twice to Denmark, with Friday’s 2-1 defeat to the Danes in Cardiff nixing Welsh dreams of promotion to League A and the insurance policy of a guaranteed place in the Euro 2020 qualifying play-offs.
Instead it is Age Hareide’s steely Denmark who claim those spoils, courtesy of Nicolai Jorgensen’s 42nd-minute breakaway goal and a late Martin Braithwaite strike, while Ireland descend to League C – irrespective of Monday’s result against the Danes in Aarhus – and Wales stay where they are.
The outcome was naturally a disappointment to the sold-out crowd that packed Cardiff City Stadium in the hope of witnessing a night to stand alongside Wales’s transformative win over Belgium in the Euro 2016 qualifiers, but it reflected Denmark’s superior savoir-faire.
Ryan Giggs’s Wales, who lost defenders Paul Dummett and James Chester to injury, had more of the ball, more of the chances and gave themselves a glimmer of hope when Gareth Bale reduced the arrears with a minute to play, but they lacked Denmark’s clinical edge.
Bale’s goal, which came a minute after Braithwaite had put the visitors 2-0 up, was the first that Denmark had conceded in the group and only the sixth they had shipped all year. When you are that miserly at the back, you don’t need many chances.
Fittingly for a group decider, both teams could call upon their star men. Christian Eriksen returned for Denmark after an abdominal complaint sidelined him during the last international break, while Bale and Aaron Ramsey came back into the Wales fold after missing last month’s 1-0 win in Ireland.
Initially, Wales made the clearer openings. Bale warmed Kasper Schmeichel’s palms with a dipping shot from 25 yards and the hosts twice manufactured situations where a man at the back post outjumped his marker, only to head wide from close range.
Both chances came from the right, the crosses supplied by the impressive David Brooks and Connor Roberts, the inaccurate finishes by Chester and Bale.
In Wales’s left-back position, one milestone gave way to another as an injury to Newcastle’s Dummett, who was making his full international debut, enabled Reading’s Chris Gunter to come on and equal Neville Southall’s national record of 92 caps.
For all their attacking enterprise, there were warning signs for Wales, most notably when Braithwaite was wrongly flagged offside when clean through, and three minutes before half-time, a surgical counter-attack gave Denmark the lead.
When a Welsh attack broke down, Yussuf Poulsen ferried the ball up to Jorgensen, whose lay-off enabled Thomas Delaney to spread the ball wide to Poulsen, now charging down the right flank.
Poulsen’s first-time pass ballooned off his foot, but with Chester inattentive, Jorgensen had the freedom to run through and tuck a shot beneath the advancing Wayne Hennessey.
Giggs suffered another defensive setback early in the second half, an injury to Chester obliging him to pitch 18-year-old Ethan Ampadu into central defence.
Brooks had already threatened by that point, miscuing his close-range volley from Bale’s cross, and he would do so again, curling narrowly wide with his left foot after skating across the pitch from left to right.
After Tyler Roberts had headed wide from Gunter’s cross, Poulsen let Wales off the hook by blazing over from Eriksen’s through-ball.
A late free-kick won by substitute Harry Wilson offered Bale a chance to be Wales’s saviour again, but his vicious, dipping effort drew a stunning save from Schmeichel, who flew to his left and palmed the ball onto the post.
Braithwaite sparked a breathless finale in the 88th minute, smashing a volley past Hennessey from Henrik Dalsgaard’s long throw.
Wales replied immediately, Bale seizing on Ashley Williams’s raking long pass and rounding Schmeichel to score his 31st international goal, but the game was already up.
Wales (4-2-3-1): Hennessey; C. Roberts, Chester (Ampadu 50’), Williams (capt), Dummett (Gunter 39’); Ramsey, Allen; Brooks, Bale, Lawrence; T. Roberts (Wilson 68’)
(4-2-3-1): Schmeichel (capt); Dalsgaard, M. Jorgensen, Christensen, Stryger Larsen; Schone (Lerager 79’), Delaney; Braithwaite, Eriksen, Poulsen; N. Jorgensen (Dolberg 70’)
Referee: Ivan Kruzliak (Slovakia). Attendance: 32,354
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