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Wales 2-1 Croatia: Harry Wilson scores twice to keep hopes alive of automatic Euro 2024 qualification

Match report as Harry Wilson scores both goals at the Cardiff City Stadium to ignite Wales' quest to automatically qualify for Euro 2024; On an electric night in the capital, Rob Page makes powerful statement amid speculation over his future

Wales' Harry Wilson celebrates scoring their side's first goal of the game during the UEFA Euro 2024 Qualifying Group D match at the Cardiff City Stadium, Wales. Picture date: Sunday October 15, 2023.
Image: Harry Wilson starred as Wales overcame Croatia

Wales kept their automatic hopes of qualifying for Euro 2024 alive as Harry Wilson scored both goals in a pulsating 2-1 victory over Croatia on Sunday.

In front of a full house, Wales produced one of their most memorable performances at the Cardiff City Stadium as Wilson rose to the occasion, scoring twice within 13 second-half minutes (47, 60) to ensure Rob Page's side leapfrog Croatia into second place in Group D.

Mario Pasalic's close-range header reduced the deficit (75) to set up a tense finale, but Wales absorbed a late onslaught to secure the victory needed to preserve hopes of finishing in the top two, and with it an automatic berth at next summer's tournament in Germany.

An emotional Page said afterwards when asked about his players' commitment: "That's never been in doubt. There's been a lot of noise. Actions speak louder than words.

"I'm sick and tired of speaking about my future, so let's just talk about the lads and the performances. Young JJ [Jordan James] played like he's a 30-year-old experienced professional against the best midfielder in world football.

"I'm so proud of them all. I get emotional at times as I'm just proud of them. We cannot wait for the next camp. We can't wait to get ready for the next game."

Player ratings

Wales: Ward (7), B Davies (8), Rodon (8), Mepham (8), Roberts (7), Williams (7), Ampadu (7), J James (8), Brooks (7), Wilson (9), Moore (7).

Subs:D James (7), Broadhead (6).

Croatia: Livakovic (7), Barisic (6), Gvardiol (6), Vida (5), Juranovic (5), Kovacic (5), Brozovic (5), Modric (7), Brekalo (6), Musa (5), Majer (7).

Subs: Stanisic (7), Pasalic (7), Sosa (6), Beljo (6).

Player of the match: Harry Wilson.

How Wales held on for famous victory

Wilson scored both goals in Wales' vital victory
Image: Wilson scored both goals in Wales' vital victory

Wales came into the contest knowing victories in their final three group games were probably necessary to secure a top-two place and avoid the play-offs in March.

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Page's side still have to work to do in November - away to Armenia and at home to group leaders Turkey - but upsetting the 2022 World Cup semi-finalists in such fashion offers great encouragement.

Team news

David Brooks and Kieffer Moore returned to Wales' Euro 2024 qualifying starting line-up against Croatia in Cardiff.

Brooks, who scored in the 2-0 win against Latvia last month after coming on as a substitute, and Moore were due to link up in attack with Wales missing injured pair Aaron Ramsey and Brennan Johnson. Ben Davies captained the side in Ramsey's absence.

Croatia made three changes from the side surprisingly beaten at home by Turkey on Thursday, with recalls for Josip Juranovic, Domagoj Vida and Lovro Majer. Wales realistically needed to win to keep alive their hopes of automatic qualification for next summer's finals in Germany.

This win takes Wales into second place above Croatia by virtue of them having a betterhead-to-head record from their fixtures, the Dragons having drawn their opening game of the campaign 1-1 in Split in March.

The result will ease the pressure on manager Page, who awoke to newspaper headlines on Saturday morning linking Roy Keane to his job.

Page vowed he would shut out all external noise at his pre-match press conference in which he became visibly emotional, and that chatter will now surely dim after this result.

The players observe a minute's silence to remember the victims of the conflict in Israel and Palestine
Image: The players observe a minute's silence to remember the victims of the conflict in Israel and Palestine

Victory in Latvia last month had boosted Wales, but Aaron Ramsey and Brennan Johnson had picked up injuries and were replaced by David Brooks, a scoring substitute in Riga, and Kieffer Moore.

Ben Davies took over the captaincy in Ramsey's absence as Wilson won his landmark cap, exactly a decade on from becoming Wales' youngest-ever player at the age of 16 years and 207 days.

History was against Wales with no wins in seven games against Croatia and the visitors were smarting from Thursday's 1-0 loss to Turkey - their first-ever home defeat in European Championship qualification.

Luka Modric protects the ball from Kieffer Moore
Image: Luka Modric protects the ball from Kieffer Moore

Croatia made three changes from that shock defeat but their midfield triumvirate of Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic - the heartbeat of this 'Golden Generation' - remained in tact.

Wales started on the front foot but the pattern of the game soon developed with Croatia dominating possession and the hosts seeking to spring swift counter-attacks.

Wilson almost profited from one such raid after Brooks had tricked Josko Gvardiol in the build-up. The ball just ran away from Wilson, who could not connect with enough power and Domagoj Vida blocked.

Domagoj Vida tangles with Harry Wilson
Image: Domagoj Vida tangles with Harry Wilson

A period of Croatia keep-ball ended with Josip Juranovic crossing and Petar Musa heading over, but it was a rare moment of concern for Wales who were gaining in confidence.

Ethan Ampadu picked out Brooks after 21 minutes and his feather-like touch and pass freed Wilson through the middle.

Wilson was brought down in full flow by Vida, with the close attendance of Gvardiol preventing the yellow card from turning to red.

Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic tipped away Wilson's resulting free-kick and was also equal to Neco Williams' curling effort after the wing-back had cut inside on his right foot.

Gvardiol's intervention was also needed to deny Connor Roberts after Wilson's clever back-heel had created space.

Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic made three changes at half-time, a sign that he was unimpressed with his side's first-half performance.

Mario Pasalic rises to reduce the deficit
Image: Mario Pasalic rises to reduce the deficit

But Wales struck within two minutes of the restart as the visitors failed to cope with Danny Ward's punt forward.

The ball came off a Croatia player under pressure from Moore and Brooks volleyed the ball on.

Wilson took it in his stride and outpaced Vida to chip the ball over the stranded Livakovic for his seventh Wales goal.

The lead was doubled after 60 minutes as Daniel James, having replaced Brooks three minutes earlier, swung over a cross that Wilson glanced beyond Livakovic into the corner of the net.

Croatia rose from their slumber with Ward saving from substitute Dion Drena Beljo, the ball turned inches around the post.

Modric's resulting corner glanced off the head of Moore for Pasalic to pounce from close range, but Wales held on for a famous victory against the world's sixth-ranked team.

Ethan Ampadu challenges Marcelo Brozovic
Image: Ethan Ampadu challenges Marcelo Brozovic

Croatia head coach Zlatko Dalic believes the 2022 World Cup semi-finalists face a tough task to qualify automatically after successive defeats to Turkey and Wales.

Dalic said: "It is going to be difficult. We understand it is not all in our hands any more. We have to believe that we are going to be able to turn this around.

"We just played both games without energy, we didn't play well, we didn't create any chances. Our opponent was more aggressive, tougher than us and we deserved to lose."

Page: Best performance of my reign

Wales came out and fought for Rob Page
Image: Wales came out and fought for Rob Page

Wales boss Rob Page:

"I would say it's the best performance (of his three-year reign), I am immensely proud. There was unnecessary noise coming into it, with me fighting fires. I didn't need any player to speak, I see the players want to play for me.

"I had a text from the chief executive today, before that, not for five weeks. I just want to concentrate on the football, we are two games away from qualifying for another major tournament, a fourth in five.

"We believe we can do it. We need to do the same (in November) as we did in this camp. In all aspects, how we defended against an excellent team with one of the best midfields in the world was outstanding.

Wilson came to Wales' rescue with his double
Image: Wilson came to Wales' rescue with his double

"We are in a transition period where we've lost one of the best players in the world (Gareth Bale). We are introducing young players to strengthen us and improve us.

"Seven of our 11 are not starting for their club. Chris Mepham's last game was against Latvia. Kieffer Moore isn't playing for his club. But when they turn up for Wales they produce a performance like that. I am really proud of them as a group.

"The players are an incredible bunch and it's in our hands now. I understand not everyone is going to be a fan of mine, but when you have a group of players playing like that for you, it makes you immensely proud."

'Wales must approach Armenia game in same way'

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Robert Earnshaw could not contain his excitement at Wales' second goal as they went 2-0 up against Croatia in their Euro 2024 qualifier.

Former Wales striker Rob Earnshaw on Sky Sports News:

"When Wales played Armenia at home, there was an expectation on them to win the game. They have to approach that second game against them as they did tonight. It was a bad performance that night with bad goals.

"Defensively that night they were very open and gave up chance after chance. Wales cannot give them that opportunity again. They have to go to Armenia, press the ball and perform as though they were the home team. They've got to instigate what's happening in a game.

"It's a must-win, it's in Armenia, but let's really go at them and leave it all out on the pitch."

Wilson ready to fit into Bale shoes

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Geraint Hughes reports on Wales' brilliant 2-1 victory over Croatia that keeps their automatic European Championship qualifying hopes alive.

Sky Sports' Ben Grounds:

"The sound of the final whistle was drowned out by the crowd at the Cardiff City Stadium. Rob Page turned to his coaching staff, who lifted him high into the dark sky. A huge outpouring of relief after a challenging week.

"If there was any doubt who is in charge of Wales, and who really ought to be whatever happens next month, Sunday's breathless 2-1 win in the capital silenced the speculation.

"It was a coming-of-age performance from the 19-year-old James up against Luka Modric and, to a man, Wales were superb. Without the injured Brennan Johnson and Aaron Ramsey, Page made the right call in starting David Brooks over Dan James.

"Actions did speak louder than words. His selection and his powerful statement of unity were both vindicated, and Harry Wilson showed he is ready to be the country's new talisman in this post Gareth Bale era. One down, two to go. Qualification is in Welsh hands. Roll on Armenia and the trip to Yerevan next month."

What's next?

Wales return to action in November with two Euro 2024 qualifiers as they go to Armenia on November 18 followed by a home game against Turkey on November 21.

Meanwhile, Croatia's final two qualifiers in November are against Latvia away and Armenia at home.

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