A coveted spot in Qatar awaits for either Wales or Ukraine on Sunday night, with the two World Cup 2022 hopefuls going head-to-head at the Cardiff City Stadium in their playoff final. Rob Page’s side sunk Austria to make it this far, while their visitors got the better of Scotland 3-1 in their semi-final battle on Wednesday night at Hampden Park. The home faithful at the Cardiff City Stadium will certainly be behind them, but Wales ought to be aware that the rest of the world will be cheering for Ukraine, and there can be no room for sympathy in a footballing sense for Page’s side while a game is there to be won.
Just over two months ago, the Dragons were indebted to Gareth Bale MBE for putting them two goals to the good in their playoff semi-final against Austria, who clawed themselves back into the game from Marcel Sabitzer but could not find that elusive second goal in the Welsh capital. Now only 90 minutes away from booking their spot in the World Cup finals for just the second time ever after getting as far as the quarter-finals in 1958, Wales sought to make it 10 games in a row without defeat during Wednesday’s friendly with Poland but ultimately fell to a 2-1 defeat.
However, Page took the opportunity to rest a number of his key players ahead of Sunday’s crunch clash, which Wales enter having found the back of the net in each of their last seven matches, albeit while conceding at least one goal in each of their last five. Home soil is traditionally kind to the Dragons, though, as they have strung together an impressive 18-game unbeaten streak in front of their own supporters since defeat to Denmark in November 2018, but Ukraine have recent when it comes to prevailing on British territory.
Taking part in their first competitive fixture since the dreadful conflicts began in their homeland earlier this year, Ukraine did a remarkable job of focusing on their on-field endeavours to silence Hampden Park and inch closer to a World Cup finals appearance at the expense of Scotland. Andriy Yarmolenko’s lob and Roman Yaremchuk’s header put the Blue and Yellow two goals to the good before Callum McGregor made things interesting, but substitute Artem Dovbyk removed any shred of doubt in the dying embers of their semi-final.
With the knowledge that a good selection of the neutral fans will be on their side on Sunday, Oleksandr Petrakov’s side are on the cusp of reaching the World Cup for just the second time as an independent nation after getting as far as the last eight in the 2006 edition. Whichever side comes up trumps here will fill the void in Group B with England, Iran and the USA, and Ukraine enter the playoff final unbeaten in eight games since their Euro 2020 thrashing at the hands of England, although they have only managed one clean sheet in that run.
Wales and Ukraine’s two battles during qualifying for the 2002 World Cup ended in a 1-1 stalemate, but the Blue and Yellow came out on top 1-0 in a 2016 friendly thanks to Yarmolenko’s winner, and the ex-West Ham United man heads to Cardiff with every intention of captaining his side all the way to Qatar. Wales boss Page will welcome the returns of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Ben Davies and Joe Allen after the quartet were spared in the friendly draw with Poland, and Joe Morrell is available after missing the semi-final through suspension.
Wayne Hennessey and Danny Ward both enjoyed 45 minutes apiece on Wednesday night as the former prepares to take control of the gloves, while Joe Rodon and Ethan Ampadu also prepare to return to the backline. Connor Roberts, Harry Wilson and Neco Williams are also fit and ready to step out onto the Cardiff turf from the first whistle, while Daniel James came through the first half against Poland unscathed and will hope to get the nod to join Bale in the final third. As for Ukraine, Petrakov has no fresh injury concerns to report from the semi-final win over Scotland, and it would be a surprise to see any changes made to the XI in Cardiff.
Dovbyk’s contribution off the bench will not be enough to see him displace Yaremchuk at the tip of the attack, and 45-goal winger Yarmolenko will aim to further close in on Andriy Shevchenko’s record of 48 goals for his country. Oleksandr Zinchenko is poised to earn his 50th cap for Ukraine from his midfield role on Sunday night, where Sergiy Sydorchuk and Mykola Shaparenko will once again provide fresh legs from the bench.
Wales possible starting lineup:
Hennessey; Rodon, Ampadu, Davies; Roberts, Ramsey, Allen, Williams; Wilson, Bale, James
Ukraine possible starting lineup:
Bushchan; Karavaev, Zabarnyi, Matvienko, Mykolenko; Malinovskyi, Stepanenko, Zinchenko; Yarmolenko, Yaremchuk, Tsygankov