McAuley own goal propels Wales to Euro quarters, as Northern Ireland head home
Holly Thackeray | June 25, 2016
Wales 1-0 Northern Ireland
- Bale frustrated in first-half
- Wales and Northern Ireland head for interval all-square
- McAuley own goal from Bale cross gives Wales lead on 75 minutes
- Dragons squeeze through to quarters, will face Hungary or Belgium
- Northern Ireland head home
Decisive moment from McAuley as Dragons progress
As two Home Nations Wales and Northern Ireland fought it out fiercely for a place in the Euro 2016 quarter-finals, it was Chris Coleman’s crew that ran out 1-0 winners from this historic encounter as their triumphant tournament run continued.
With very few clear-cut chances, owed to the resolute determination by both teams to defend, it took the Dragons around 75 minutes to ripple the Northern Ireland net. From a Gareth Bale cross, it was Gareth McAuley left blushing as the Premier League man knocked the ball into his own net.
The Green and White never gave up, but it was the Welsh that held out to squeeze through to the quarters in the end.
Next up it’s one of Hungary or Belgium for Coleman’s crew in the quarter-finals, while Poland have also already booked their place in the final eight after pipping Switzerland on spot-kicks.
Ramsey goal revoked
Northern Ireland were the first to get a proper chance on target, as Leeds United wingman Stuart Dallas drove forward to test Wayne Hennessey. While, his defence kept a close eye on any Bale breakaways, with Jonny Evans tasked with tracking the roving Real Madrid man.
Looking rather uncomfortable as favourites rather than underdogs, and with the onus on them to attack, Wales took almost 20 minutes to get into the groove in Paris.
It was a looping ball in that found springing Sam Vokes, kept in the XI after impressing in the Russia rout, and looked destined to end in the back of the net. It did but, after Aaron Ramsey helped it on, the goal was ruled rightly offside and relieved a defiant Norn Iron.
Jamie Ward drew another save from Hennessey, as the Nottingham Forest forward was able to take a potshot from distance that skimmed over the bar as Hennessey’s hand got just enough contact to divert. It was yet another sign that the Dragons would not be allowed to run rough shod over the team in Green and White.
Michael O’Neill’s men had the flanks firmly locked down with their own widemen patrolling, as Bale struggled to get away from the attentions of Dallas to curl a cross in, with the Leeds star later booked for diving in recklessly on the Real attacker.
Wales thus ended the first-half frustrated without a single shot on target, and needing to adapt their game plan to avoid a stumble toward spot-kicks.
Bale continues to be denied
There was much more bite about both sides after the break, but the Northern Irish still held the edge with a Ward rifled shot blocked in the box after an intricate set-piece slice of theatre.
Ramsey pinged an absolute beauty of a diagonal ball to isolated Vokes, bypassing the entire Norn Iron defence. But, the Burnley target man could not make clean contact and the golden opportunity trickled wide as history maker Hal Robson-Kanu then came on for his compatriot.
Suddenly, a fire was sparked under the encounter as Bale won a free-kick from a favoured position. Having converted two set-pieces in the tournament so far, the pressure was on post protector Michael McGovern to outwit the superstar – and he did so with a solid save.
But, before Bale and Wales knew it, Northern Ireland had the ball back up the other end to win a free-kick of their own, as this tale of two counter-attacking teams finally opened up.
McAuley clanger crushes Norn Iron
Chris Coleman changed the composition of his side by adding Jonny Williams to midfield in place of Crystal Palace clubmate Joe Ledley for a little more magic and inspiration, and the switch for the playmaker began to pay off nicely.
Though Kyle Laffery almost got in on goal for the Irish as he slipped through the net, but West Bromwich Albion’s James Chester was on hand to bundle him off the ball.
Yet, as chorus after chorus of ‘Will Grigg’s on Fire’ spontaneously erupted around the stadium, it was the patient approach from the team in red that finally paid off.
In the 75th minute, star pair Bale (4/1 with Coral to be tournament top scorer) and Ramsey combined to inflict a hammer blow on Northern Irish ambition.
Arsenal plotter Ramsey picked out Bale, who lashed a probing cross along the face of goal, but it was not lurking Robson-Kanu who got the toe poke but red-faced McAuley who instead prodded the ball into the back of his own net in a hapless and unfortunate attempt to clear.
The guys in Green and White looked to rally, but a nasty looking collision between Wales namesakes Ashley and Jonny Williams briefly paused the play.
Both Williams boys recovered to help hold down the fort, as Northern Ireland toiled but could come up with nothing to truly trouble in response, as even keeper McGovern dashed up top for one last go at a leveller.
The Northern Irish now go home but can argue they were by far the better team in an often turgid game. But Bale and co will care little, having provided the crucial moment of inspiration again and proven they can clinch the tight results. However, an improved performance will be needed against the quality of a Croatia or Portugal.