Wales left it late to beat lowly Moldova as goals from Hal Robson-Kanu and Aaron Ramsey gave them a second win in four days to keep alive their hopes of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
Despite a gulf of 141 places between the two in the Fifa world rankings, the game was goalless at half-time thanks to a combination of stubborn Moldovan defending and a dearth of quality in the Welsh attack.
Just as their desperate search for a winning goal seemed destined for crushing disappointment, the visitors were again left to cherish the impact of Ben Woodburn – their match-winner against Austria on Saturday – as the 17-year-old’s superb run and cross set up Robson-Kanu’s diving header.
Ramsey’s deflected strike in injury time sealed victory for Wales, who are now up to second place in Group D but remain four points behind leaders Serbia, who beat the Republic of Ireland in Dublin.
With only two matches left, that means the play-offs look like Wales’ likeliest route to next year’s tournament in Russia.
The play-off places will be filled by the eight best runners-up in the nine qualifying groups, excluding their results against the bottom side.
As things stand, although Wales’ chances of qualifying automatically as group winners are all but over, their victory against Moldova at least means they have stolen a march on the Republic of Ireland in the race for second spot.
Woodburn makes decisive impact
Wales had revived their prospects of qualifying with a dramatic win over Austria in Cardiff three days earlier, as Woodburn came on to score a fabulous long-range goal just four minutes into his international debut.
The Liverpool forward remained on the bench in Chisinau, although manager Chris Coleman signalled his attacking intent by switching from his favoured 5-4-1 formation to a 4-2-3-1 system as he had done at half-time against Austria.
It did not have the desired effect in the first half, as Wales struggled to find a way past their opponents’ deep-lying and tenacious defence.
Gareth Bale had a low shot fumbled by goalkeeper Ilie Cebanu – who redeemed himself by smothering Ramsey’s rebound – but despite enjoying as much as 72% possession, Wales lacked guile and cutting edge at crucial moments.
That was until Woodburn came on after an hour and immediately injected the pace and invention his team-mates had struggled to produce in attack.
With 10 minutes left, the teenager burst into the Moldovan penalty area and clipped a perfect cross for Robson-Kanu, whose plunging header brought precious relief to the Welsh fans behind the goal.
Ramsey’s goal gave the scoreline a healthier look but, with Serbia marching towards automatic qualification, it will realistically be the play-offs in Wales’ sights as they go into their October double-header away against Georgia and – potentially pivotally – at home to the Republic of Ireland.
Exorcising ghosts of Moldova past
The scene at Moldova’s clean and compact new ground, Stadionul Zimbru, was in stark contrast to Wales’ previous visit to the country.
In 1994, they were greeted with a cockroach infestation and a shortage of hot water at their hotel, before suffering a humiliating 3-2 defeat against a Moldovan side playing only their fifth game since gaining independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Coleman was in the Welsh team that day but, having led his side to a 4-0 drubbing of Moldova at the start of this campaign, he was hopeful of avoiding another ignominious episode against a nation without a competitive victory since 2013.
The boisterous crowd inside the 10,000-capacity stadium were encouraged by their side’s defensive application, and they sensed an upset might be on the cards with chances for the likes of Cagliari’s Artur Ionita.
There was even a chance of a draw after Robson-Kanu gave Wales the lead, as substitute Andrei Cojocari’s low drive forced Wayne Hennessey into a fine fingertip save in added time.
However, Ramsey’s late goal settled any residual Welsh nerves and gave Coleman’s side their first away win since 2015.
Man of the match – Ben Woodburn
Former Wales striker John Hartson on BBC Radio 5 live
Wales needed the inspiration from somewhere and got it late on from Ben Woodburn. What an impact. He is so young but will he now start against Georgia? Has he stamped his name on the team?
Saturday against Austria he scored the goal, tonight he made the goal, which made the difference. On a difficult night, against gritty opposition who sat in, Chris Coleman’s side have done it again.
They have come out with maximum points and that is a sign of a decent team. When you are not at your best, they can get a result. They are now back in the mix.
It was never going to be easy. England get a lot of criticism against the lesser nations but it is hard against opposition who are not interested in playing. You cannot question Wales’ effort or spirit – sometimes they just lacked that bit of brilliance.
Woodburn the difference – the stats
- Wales won away from home for the first time since September 2015 (against Cyprus), ending a run of six games without victory.
- Chris Coleman’s side are unbeaten in their past eight games (won three, drawn five), and have won in consecutive outings for the first time since July 2016 (when they won three in a row).
- Hal Robson-Kanu’s opener came through Wales’ 26th shot of the game (including blocks).
- Ben Woodburn has been directly involved in two of Wales’ past three goals, scoring the winner against Austria and assisting Hal-Robson Kanu in this game, on both occasions as a substitute.
- Only Gareth Bale (4) has scored more goals than Aaron Ramsey (2) for Wales in the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign.
The remaining two group games come next month. Wales travel to Georgia on Friday, 6 October (kick-off 17:00 BST), before finishing off their campaign against the Republic of Ireland in Cardiff three days later (kick-off 19:45 BST).
- 6EpureanuBooked at 10mins
- 7IonitaSubstituted forBugaevat 85′minutes
- 3GraurBooked at 53minsSubstituted forAmbrosat 85′minutes
- 20PascencoSubstituted forCojocariat 70′minutes
- 10DedovBooked at 45mins
- 8KingBooked at 44minsSubstituted forVokesat 67′minutes
- 9Robson-KanuBooked at 57minsSubstituted forEdwardsat 88′minutes
- 20LawrenceSubstituted forWoodburnat 61′minutes
- Pawel Raczkowski
- Shots on Target
Match ends, Moldova 0, Wales 2.
Second Half ends, Moldova 0, Wales 2.
Corner, Moldova. Conceded by Chris Gunter.
Goal! Moldova 0, Wales 2. Aaron Ramsey (Wales) right footed shot from outside the box to the top right corner. Assisted by Sam Vokes with a headed pass following a set piece situation.
Offside, Moldova. Alexandru Epureanu tries a through ball, but Vladimir Ambros is caught offside.
Corner, Moldova. Conceded by Wayne Hennessey.
Attempt saved. Andrei Cojocari (Moldova) right footed shot from outside the box is saved in the bottom left corner. Assisted by Igor Bugaev.
Attempt missed. Vladimir Ambros (Moldova) left footed shot from the centre of the box is high and wide to the left. Assisted by Radu Ginsari with a cross following a corner.
Corner, Moldova. Conceded by Chris Gunter.
Substitution, Wales. David Edwards replaces Hal Robson-Kanu.
Hal Robson-Kanu (Wales) wins a free kick on the left wing.
Foul by Veaceslav Posmac (Moldova).
Delay over. They are ready to continue.
Substitution, Moldova. Vladimir Ambros replaces Dinu Graur.
Substitution, Moldova. Igor Bugaev replaces Artur Ionita because of an injury.
Delay in match Artur Ionita (Moldova) because of an injury.
Attempt saved. Ben Woodburn (Wales) right footed shot from the left side of the box is saved in the bottom right corner. Assisted by Ben Davies.
Chris Gunter (Wales) wins a free kick on the right wing.
Foul by Alexandru Dedov (Moldova).
Goal! Moldova 0, Wales 1. Hal Robson-Kanu (Wales) header from the centre of the box to the bottom right corner. Assisted by Ben Woodburn with a cross.
Hand ball by Aaron Ramsey (Wales).
Attempt blocked. Gareth Bale (Wales) left footed shot from outside the box is blocked. Assisted by Aaron Ramsey.
Attempt missed. Aaron Ramsey (Wales) right footed shot from outside the box is just a bit too high. Assisted by Joe Allen.
Attempt blocked. Ben Woodburn (Wales) right footed shot from outside the box is blocked. Assisted by Ben Davies.
Attempt blocked. Hal Robson-Kanu (Wales) left footed shot from the centre of the box is blocked. Assisted by Sam Vokes.
Attempt missed. Gareth Bale (Wales) left footed shot from the centre of the box is too high. Assisted by Ben Davies with a cross following a corner.
Corner, Wales. Conceded by Andrei Cojocari.
Attempt blocked. Aaron Ramsey (Wales) right footed shot from outside the box is blocked. Assisted by Ben Davies.
Attempt blocked. Aaron Ramsey (Wales) right footed shot from outside the box is blocked. Assisted by Ben Woodburn.
Substitution, Moldova. Andrei Cojocari replaces Alexandru Pascenco.
Attempt missed. Sam Vokes (Wales) header from the centre of the box is close, but misses to the right. Assisted by Joe Allen with a cross following a corner.
Corner, Wales. Conceded by Alexandru Epureanu.
Substitution, Wales. Sam Vokes replaces Andy King.
Attempt missed. Artur Ionita (Moldova) header from the centre of the box is high and wide to the left. Assisted by Alexandru Pascenco with a cross following a corner.
Corner, Moldova. Conceded by Andy King.
Attempt saved. Ashley Williams (Wales) header from the left side of the six yard box is saved in the top centre of the goal. Assisted by Aaron Ramsey with a cross.
Corner, Wales. Conceded by Artiom Razgoniuc.
Delay over. They are ready to continue.
Delay in match (Wales).
Substitution, Wales. Ben Woodburn replaces Tom Lawrence.