Wales v Ukraine: World Cup qualifying playoff final could go all the way
Wales could be in for a dramatic night as they bid to qualify for their first World Cup since 1958, says Dave Tindall in his match preview...
Wales bidding to end agonising wait
When some teenage upstart called Pele scored the winner against Wales in the quarter-finals of the 1958 World Cup, no young Welsh fan back then would have thought they'd still be waiting for their team to reach the finals again.
But controversial refereeing decisions against Scotland in 1977 and 1985 along with Paul Bodin's penalty miss against Romania in 1993 were the low points in a cycle of heartbreak that the current Welsh squad will be hoping to break in Cardiff on Sunday evening.
Wales beat Austria 2-1 in their playoff semi-final to reach this stage, as Gareth Bale produced a Roy of the Rovers performance to thrill the home fans.
Robert Page's men looked set to take their unbeaten streak to 10 when a much-changed side took a 1-0 lead against Poland in their UEFA Nations League opener in Wroclaw on Wednesday night. But goals from Jakub Kaminski and Karol Swiderski in the final 18 minutes gave the Poles victory.
Still, it was a decent display from Wales and, even with many of their first-team regulars rested - Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and Ben Davies were left out of the squad - they proved yet again that they're a hard team to beat.
Now for a game that Page calls the biggest in their history.
Ukraine deserve plaudits for Hampden win
Ukraine could have been forgiven for being too pumped up in their World Cup playoff semi-final against Scotland with so much emotion in the camp given the Russian invasion of their homeland.
But when it came to it, they played with their heads as well as their hearts. Forget any idea of destiny, Ukraine simply outperformed the Scots and showed they were the better team in all departments.
While certain players haven't been able to play competitively since the war started, a month-long training camp has allowed boss Oleksandr Petrakov to get his side in good shape.
They certainly showed that against Scotland as goals from Andriy Yarmolenko, Roman Yaremchuk and Artem Dovbyk secured a 3-1 win that reflected their superiority at Hampden.
The match had been delayed since March and at one stage there were doubts if it would be played at all.
Confidence will be high but it's fair to say Ukraine will face a tougher task in Cardiff than they did at Hampden. Scotland underperformed and Wales are unlikely to offer up anywhere near as many chances.
History says it will be close
The two sides have met just three times previously and there wasn't much to choose between them.
They played out a pair of 1-1 draws in World Cup qualifying in 2001 while Ukraine edged a 2016 friendly 1-0 as Yarmolenko scored with the home side's only shot on target.
This time they square off with Wales (18) nine places above Ukraine (27) in the current FIFA World Rankings.
Looking at the odds, Wales are very slight favourites at 2.8 to win in 90 minutes, while Ukraine are 2.98 and The Draw 3.15.
Wales were unbeaten in nine before the Poland defeat, winning four and drawing five.
Ukraine haven't lost since being thumped 4-0 by England at the last Euros. They've had similar form to Wales with four wins and five draws.
Showdown could go the distance
Whichever way you look at it, there's parity everywhere.
Both teams are desperate to make it to Qatar even if their fiercest motivations are very different.
The head-to-heads show balance and both teams have been tough nuts to crack in recent times, although playing out plenty of draws during their unbeaten runs.
It all points to this one going beyond the 90 minutes.
From there, it's perhaps anyone's guess and there doesn't seem any obvious reason why one side would come on stronger in extra-time.
Therefore I'm going to back the ultimate drama and head to the penalty markets.
For the record, Wales have never featured in a penalty shootout while Ukraine have only been involved in one, beating Switzerland in the last 16 at the 2006 World Cup.
Therefore, I'll split stakes and have 0.5pts on each team winning penalties at 10.5.
Bale glory option will be popular on Bet Builder
A lot of Welsh fans will already know where their money is going on Sunday: Gareth Bale to score in a Wales win.
That landed against Austria in the semi-final and, on the Bet Builder, it pays 5.3. It needs to be in 90 minutes of course.
Andriy Yarmolenko has previous against Wales and also netted against Scotland in midweek. It's around 5.2 for the West Ham forward to score in a Ukraine win.
Combining the two potential goalgetters, Bale to score, Yarmolenko to score and The Draw pays around 34.
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