What should, on paper, have been Wales’s easiest game of this World Cup qualifying campaign turned into a taxing assignment as they were held to a goalless draw at home to Estonia.
Gareth Bale and Ethan Ampadu rattled the woodwork late on but Wales plateaued to allow the visitors to pick up their first point. Robert Page prowled his technical area as Wales huffed and puffed but they could not find a way past the inspired Estonia goalkeeper Karl Hein, rendering their faint hopes of automatic qualification slim.
The most frustrating moment arrived seven minutes from time when Bale mapped out a route towards goal but the Arsenal teenager Hein repelled his shot and then, from the rebound, the Wales captain headed against a post. The most moving aspect of a balmy evening was no contest. In the 52nd minute supporters stood for a minute’s applause on what would have been the late Wales captain and manager Gary Speed’s 52nd birthday.
The Wales support enjoyed returning in their numbers for the first time since witnessing Aaron Ramsey, absent here through injury, seal qualification for Euro 2020 but they were powerless as Bale, Tyler Roberts and Harry Wilson passed up inviting first-half openings. After the interval Bale made a monstrous leap at the front post to meet a free-kick by Ben Davies but Hein soared to his right to paw his header clear, before Ampadu sent a looping header against a post, leaving Wales flummoxed at the final whistle.
“It was just one of those nights where we didn’t take our chances and obviously we are very disappointed,” Bale said. “We had quite a few clear-cut ones as well. I felt like we played well, we moved the ball well but, if you don’t finish your chances, you don’t win games. We had a chance right at the start. It was just frustrating. Everything seemed to hit the goalkeeper, hit the post or go wide. We need to be more ruthless in the next game.”
In the buildup to this game Bale had stressed how Wales had grand plans of ousting Belgium from top spot in Group E and they made a blistering start. Chris Gunter, on his 104th appearance, flew down the right flank before playing a superb pass into the box for Wilson but the Fulham forward shot wide with only 37 seconds gone. Bale, fresh from bringing the match ball home from Kazan after victory over Belarus on Sunday, was busy but sent a first-time shot sailing over after Wales shifted the ball from left to right.
Estonia were obdurate opponents but they came within inches of opening the scoring before the interval when Mattias Käit clipped the crossbar and would have snatched victory as the game ticked into stoppage time but for Danny Ward’s intervention. Ward shook his head in disbelief after sprawling to his right to deny Konstantin Vassilijev from scoring from distance.
In the end Wales had to settle for a point that keeps their destiny in their own hands, though the play-offs now seem the most likely route to Qatar.
They are already virtually guaranteed a play-off place courtesy of their success in the Nations League but finishing second in the group could secure Wales a more favourable draw .
Daniel James kept plugging away down the left but Wales’s early zest had vanished, Page bowing his head when a harmless cross looped into the hands of Hein. Estonia seemed to delight in indulging in some of the dark arts as the game drew to a close but Wales still presented them with a couple of chances late on and were left to stew on what might have been. “We need to be more clinical when we get opportunities,” Page said. “We created enough chances to win two games of football.”