Contest. And then maybe not?

Where are Wales? What level they at? Are they heroic over-achievers, in a cruel, more heavily-endowed-with-everything kindofa world? Or what? Where’s the Wales Place, in footballing terms – and maybe the other stuff? Football-wise, are they brave and bold, or are they ungenerous and perverse? Are the ‘limitations’ enabling or stultifying? Where do,or should Wales pitch themselves?

These and more LIVE QUESTIONS lie resolutely unanswered beneath… in my live blog from Wales v Iran.

I note to the universe the wonders of the human eye. Because the eight zillion pounds a pop cameras covering #Wales #Iran are plainly battling against the glories of the light. (*Insert smart-arsed Dylan Thomas gag, here*). The stark incredi-contrast between bright and mercifully shaded areas of the park are almost too much for mere, space-age technology. But the Beeb Camera-people and the rest wrestle on, manfully.

Wales start well, disappear for ten minutes then Moore should score from a curling cross from the right. Not clear if he really is hurt by the defender’s boot or whether he’s just lying there, mortified. In a (rareish?) moment of clarity and brevity, the commentator on said channel pronounces this a ‘contest’ – and he’s right. Encouragingly.

Iran have hoisted a ball or two longish, early, to expose the Wales centre-backs turning-circle. It nearly works and it’s an interesting, perhaps counter-intuitive tactical ploy.

On fifteen minutes the whites ‘score’… but the onrushing attacker has rather poorly gotten ahead of the ball. Clearly off: a ‘you had one job moment’. Alarming, though, for Wales – the opposition already looking like they will register. Bale is mildly contacted in the fizzog by a loose but unthreatening arm. He rolls theatrically to the floor, just on the off-chance that the ref might produce a red. Gaz may be a god… but that was cheap as chips.

Twenty-five minutes in and Iran are marginally the better: they aren’t remotely slaughtering Wales in the way that the USA did, in that extraordinary first period of game one, but they have more controlled possession and do look more threatening. Marginally. Then Ramsey is looking a little more influential, which may augur well in terms of establishing rhythm and a level of ease with the occasion. The game is tense but rather low-key: there is space to play but not enough quality, from either side, to string multiple passes together.

Again Iran go long. Understandably. They have plainly identified a weakness in the core of that Welsh defence. Suddenly, one-on-ones look a danger. Rodon and Davies have both had to scramble. But Wilson responds, finding Williams in a luxury of space on the left of the Iranian box. Unusually for the flying full-back, his touch is poor and uncommitted. A real opportunity is wasted.

First corner on 42 minutes: Iranian keeper claims. Already that feeling that both sides are prepared to accept a Phoney War, in the knowledge that this will become unacceptable come the (what?) 75 minute-mark. A draw really not likely to be enough for Wales: however much they protest their lack of fear for England, Southgate’s side are significantly superior. The Page Posse must therefore look to bank some points, here.

Iran are probably less good than the USA, but they will feel that a win against Wales offers some hope for going beyond the group stage. They will consider a draw in that final game entirely possible. Four points might take somebody through, especially if England go through the group with three victories. All of which brings us back to notion that both sides must look to win this fixture – despite what coaches, captains and fans might say, should this turn out a draw.

At the half, a draw seems likely. Just before the break, Iran came close to breaking the deadlock after a controlled move down the right finished with a smart, curled cross that Rodon just managed to shepherd away. A critical view of Wales might be that again they have failed to retain possession or build attacks. Against Iran, the weakest team in their group. For all his inspiring brilliance, Bale has again been quiet. He may be a past master of finding or waiting for His Moment but another view of this is that he is simply not offering enough.

Palpably, Wales have limited playing resources – even acknowledging that this group has more players who can genuinely live/compete at international than any Welsh side for many years. They have lived off team spirit and occasional flickering moments of genius or high-level execution from their skipper for aeons. Now the captain has again to deliver, not just in terms of snatched goals – although manifestly that would ‘do’ – but by playing well, influencing the pattern of the game. Ditto Ramsey, the other player of high (if faded) quality. Wales needs more than the occasional miracle: they need to play better.

We kick off. Again neither side presses hard, so there is scope to gather and get your head up. Iran’s defensive shape looks to be holding, with some comfort, any Welsh incursions. The reverse is less true.

On 51 minutes Iran ‘must score’ three times. They burst clear on the right, Azmoun beats the keeper but the ball clatters back off Hennessy’s left-hand post. Within seconds, Gholizadeh belts his right-hand upright, with a fabulous, curling, left-foot drive which rebounds out to the diving centre-forward, who nods into the keeper’s chest. Barely credible. A real surge, now, for Iran. Perhaps the single-most concerning period of pressure, for Wales.

Page must be concerned but he has no choice: despite being in trouble, he must throw on attacking substitutions. James and Johnson, for Roberts and Wilson.

The flow remains with Iran. An hour done, and for the first time I’m thinking Wales win this 1-0 with another Bale against-the-grain intervention. Iran have another gear; are zestier, more energetic, more ‘likely’. They deserve to be ahead. Perfect territory for a Gaztastic heartbreaker.

Azmoun – who has been excellent – retires, looking exhausted. Dan James does that thing where he looks to have gained a crucial yard but fails to deliver. Wales do have real pace on the park, now, at least.. but will either Johnson or James have the composure to convert… or produce the gift that Wales so desperately need?

Hennessey has to save a slightly scuffed shot, diving to his left. Corner and more pressure. Then another. The keeper has to punch clear twice. It’s ‘all Iran’. They make a triple substitution on 75 minutes. Allen replaces Ampadu, for Wales. James finds another blind alley. It’s feistier, maybe scrappier. Angst is rising with the tightening of the time. Bale fails with a rather indulgent flick: it’s almost certain the guy’s playing hurt but he’s made no meaningful contribution and his side have been second-best – not overwhelmingly, but without question second-best.

Finally Wales produce an encouraging passage of play. James crosses long and loopy. There is a some teetering -on-the-brink before Davies is teed-up. He smashes high.

Then the Great Moment of Drama. Iran burst clear and Hennessey clatters the attacker. Has to be red – initially yellow is hoisted. The referee, rightly, is hauled over to the monitor and forced to correct. There are only a handful of minutes remaining but Wales remove Ramsey to sling in the replacement keeper, Ward.

It’s time to get behind the sofa, for the watching Welsh. Into the 90th minute but there will – of course, at #Qatar2022 – be a lump of added time. Even with ten, Wales still have to look for a win. (Repeat, no matter the traditional Welsh defiance towards the English, (and the possibility they might beat the enemy over the bridge) this is the game they have to win. Iran have looked waaay more likely to win, in this second period in particular.

Iran, however, possibly lack that killer instinct – they’ve been good, but not clinical. They are now looking a little tetchy, which is unlikely to help. Wales even have a sniff… but no. It’s all gone a bit Headless Chicken.

There are nine minutes of added time but they are largely scrappy. *Until*…

Another Iranian surge. In the 98th minute a fine right-footed strike from the Iranian number 15, Chesmi, from twenty-seven yards, finds the bottom corner. Ward may get a fingertip on it but in it goes. Finally, something to roar about: the stadium obliges. All those fans, many of whom openly wept during the forced sing-song that was the Iranian national anthem, pre-game, are jumping/screaming/bawling again – only for joy. What a sight, what a sound.

We’re not done. In the 100th minute the lead is doubled, with Wales cut brutally open. It’s one of those cruel breakaways that tends to happen when a team is left with no choice but to ‘gamble’, recklessly. Iran don’t care: Rezaeian scores after the space has opened, with a cute dink over the goalkeeper. Devastating for Bale, Page – for all of Wales – but they were beaten, as it were, on merit.

Following morning. I wake up with the strong urge to note something further about Gareth Bale. It’s simply this: that he will probably retire from internationals, after the England game. (This of course on the assumption that Wales go out of the tournament – which I fully accept is not a given. But it is likely).

Bale really is a god, here in Wales: truly loved and adored by both the Proper Fans and the Folks Who Ain’t That Bothered About Football. This despite him being a rather undemonstrative sort, personality-wise. And in return he gets that special thing about Being Welsh… and has delivered both on that and on the park – largely because of that inspiration. Bale loves Wales.

Know what? I’m thinking now that if he does sign off, there may be a post to write. ‘T will, be lost, as per, in the other zillion but maybe I’ll return to this. So enough, for now. Except to say that in my view Bale is ver-ry close to being completely shot, as a player, now. On the one hand it’s clear that playing for Wales has been the real driver behind his football for the last several years: he’s hobbled through in order to play in red at the Big Events. Now I think he should stop.

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