The tallest peaks in Europe stand between Georgia and Russia. Wales are close to climbing their own mountain to reach the latter.
Just a few months ago, some believed the scale of the task was beyond Wales. When Chris Coleman admitted in Belgrade his side would need four wins from their final four fixtures – a run of victories not achieved by the national side in 36 years – there were those who thought it would be too big an ask.
Now it is in touching distance. Never mind the play-offs, Wales can qualify for the World Cup automatically on Monday night.
In Tbilisi, a scene of past stumbles, there were plenty expecting Wales to fall, to lose their footing, to see dreams of making it to Russia and next summer’s World Cup end. Instead, after all the nightmares of 1994, Georgia is no longer on Welsh minds.
Instead, Wales made it three from three.
Now the fourth step awaits. A win over the Republic of Ireland will mean the play-offs are all but secured. It will also mean that, having lost in dramatic scenes in Vienna, Serbia have to not buckle in Belgrade on Monday – if they do not beat Georgia and Wales get their win then first spot is guaranteed, the mountain climbed. Russia will await. However it comes, Wales’ World Cup fate is in their hands after hitting the heights in Georgia.
It would be wrong to say it was all thanks to Tom Lawrence, though it was the Derby man who provided the match-winning moment of magic. After Ben Woodburn’s heroics against Austria, Wales’ youngsters are picking opportune times to score their first goals for their country.
Lawrence’s came a little earlier than Woodburn’s against Austria, though it was no less special, no less celebrated by the Red Wall that sucked in his 49th minute shot and blew back out cries of delight and belief.
The victory song of “Don’t Take Me Home” soon followed, though you’d safely bet all 2,000 in the Georgian capital have made arrangements that they are back on Welsh soil in plenty of time for Monday night’s visit of the Republic of Ireland. The summit is in sight, Russia beckons – and try telling this team they aren’t heading for a second successive major finals.
They are now unbeaten in nine in this campaign. They are a team that has tasted defeat in qualifying matches just once in their last 21 outings. They have not been behind for a single moment in this campaign.
They are unprecedented numbers for the national side of this country and they are close to reaching unprecedented horizons.
Final steps remain, of course, but this was another time Wales have proven that they absolutely have what it takes.
It was nervy, of course – when the stakes are this high they are always going to be. Wales struggled to keep calm and control as the final whistle came closer into sight and there was that lingering fear that the late goals – a sucker punch all campaign – would come.
But they held firm, Ashley Williams won the headers, Wayne Hennessey made the saves, Georgia missed chances – one glorious one at the death – but Wales had worked for their latest clean sheet.
Even Lawrence headed off his own line to underline the team performance.
And, in the absence of the team’s most high-profile player, they delivered.
If questions of whether Coleman’s side could deliver came before this week, they were screamed by some when it was confirmed Gareth Bale would miss these final matches.
Any side would miss his talent, his talismanic qualities, but not many sides would be able to step up and deliver in different ways in his absence.
It needed that spark, that magic that Bale so often brings, but here it came from Lawrence after a platform was provided by others. The hope – the belief – that there will be him or another member of this Golden Generation to shine as they look to take final steps.
Of course it would have been easier had Wales taken one of the early chances they had worked in a sharp opening.
With Allen zipping around and immediately linking well with the excellent Aaron Ramsey, Georgia were struggling to find the possession that had made them such a nuisance in Cardiff.
And when Lawrence drifted through from the left, Ramsey had in his sights the chance to mark his 50th appearance for his country with a goal of fitting significance, only for the left-footed effort to whizz past the post.
The sprightly Lawrence was the next to try, the ever-influential Joe Allen’s one-two with Sam Vokes allowing the Derby man to try and place one from the edge of the box, only for him to lean back a little too much.
Yet it wasn’t a case of a red siege to the Georgian goal. The hosts began to see a little more of the ball, stretch Wales a little more, ask more questions and place more pressure on the four-man defence.
Still, Coleman’s men dealt with it well, showing composure and patience, summed up when Ashley Williams turned his man when being pressed and began an attack that looked to have provided a 30th minute breakthrough.
Andy King’s bravery to win the ball under aerial attack freed Ramsey, whose centre was neatly flicked by Vokes towards goal. The Burnley striker was so convinced he would soon see it find the bottom corner he instinctively rose his arm, only to see the ball trickle wide.
Coleman looked agonised, though not as pained as he did eight minutes before the break when Georgia threatened for the first time. The cross from the right could and should have been buried when striker Giorgi Kviliaia was unmarked to attempt his header.
But then the moment, the spark of magic some were trying to claim was beyond this side without one particular player.
Teeing himself up with two touches to lose his man, the shot from outside the box was hit with too much confidence and power for the hand of Georgia’s Giorgi Loria to prevent the Red Wall erupting behind him.
Of course, it wasn’t the final say. Ramsey was freed in a flowing move as Lawrence’s confidence spread to others, only for the ball not to not quite sit right. By the time Ben Davies took his shot, there was enough Georgian players to block.
It would not have been typical of following Wales for it to be a comfortable finish, and Georgia sensed it and were encouraged by their crowd. The visitors could not keep the ball and so it came back, worked through tiring red shirts and opening up in goal.
Chester blocked brilliantly, Hennessey saved with the aid of Williams when Merebashvili had space on the right. And, as Otar Kakabadze bore down in space in the final moments, he failed to take his chance.
Wales took theirs.
They are climbing their mountain. Russia is in sight.
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