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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Ben Fisher at Cardiff City Stadium

Wales suffer Euro 2024 heartbreak after Poland win dramatic penalty shootout

As Wojciech Szczesny was ambushed by his Poland teammates, a penalty shootout victory and a place at the Euro 2024 finals secured, Daniel James was left counting the cost of failing to beat the goalkeeper from 12 yards.

A flawless set of penalties from Poland teed up Group D fixtures against France, Netherlands and Austria this summer and ensured Wales’s distraught players left the pitch glassy-eyed, the dream of reaching a third straight European Championship and a fourth major tournament in five over, ended in the cruellest of circumstances.

Robert Lewandowski set the tone with the first spot-kick, sending Danny Ward the wrong way with a staggered run-up, and Krzysztof Piatek fired in Poland’s last, before James’s penalty was repelled.

Before the shootout, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, the Welsh anthem, sounded over the speakers. Moments earlier, Chris Mepham picked up his second yellow card but left the field to a hero’s ovation. The Wales supporters sang with increased vigour and a hoarse stadium announcer pleaded for a positive result with added desperation.

Rob Page admitted it would have been foolish not to practise penalties. Ben Davies, who led by example all evening, settled Wales’s nerves after Lewandowski scored in front of the Red Wall in the Canton Stand. Kieffer Moore smacked his penalty in off the underside of the crossbar.

Harry Wilson sent his down the middle, no-nonsense, Neco Williams, ice-cool, dispatched his into a pocket of the Poland goal. But after James, a substitute, missed, the words of Page’s opposite number felt prescient. “Finals and playoffs aren’t played, they’re won,” said Michal Probierz, the Poland manager who is yet to lose since replacing Fernando Santos last year.

It may take Wales a while to get over this defeat. This was a game of few chances, one that was primed to go the distance from the moment Poland optimistically took aim at Ward’s goal from kick-off.

Davies saw a first-half headed goal disallowed for offside and Moore, who teed up Davies, forced an outstanding left-hand save from Szczesny to claw his effort to safety early in the second. Jakub Piotrowski went close for Poland with a curling shot from the edge of the box in the 10th minute of extra time, seconds after Wales carved an opening at the other end.

Davies’s cutback slid between Szczesny and Bartosz Slisz but the ball would not drop for James. Minutes later, Moore was gifted possession by Piotrowski but dawdled and delayed getting his shot away, allowing the Poland midfielder to make amends.

Poland settled the quicker in an occasion bubble-wrapped in nerves. A hush fell on the stadium as Przemyslaw Frankowski sent a cross bouncing into the Wales six-yard box, but Karol Swiderski could not get on the end of it after racing between Mepham and Joe Rodon.

Ethan Ampadu barrelled into Lewandowski in an attempt to get a grip on the midfield. Rodon made a panicked intervention to prevent Nicola Zalewski from getting a clean shot away after slaloming from left to right.

Wales grew into the game, with Wilson moseying into the box unchallenged. Brennan Johnson effortlessly plucked a pass out of the sky and Ampadu pinged a sweet diagonal pass into Williams.

Then, on the verge of half-time, they thought things had come together. Wales worked a throw-in deep into the one indicated additional minute to the again-impressive Williams, whose cross found the towering Moore at the back post.

Moore cushioned a header into the six-yard box where Davies, again captain with Aaron Ramsey only fit enough for the bench, calmly steered a header into the Poland goal. The Wales dugout erupted into celebration but prematurely, with Davies straying offside beyond Frankowski.

Page was adamant that Wales would not have any kind of inferiority complex against a Poland team boasting a household name in Lewandowski. “They’re in the playoffs for a reason,” was Page’s take on a Poland team that finished behind Albania and Czech Republic in qualifying. They also have a fine goalkeeper in Szczesny and four minutes into the second half the 33-year-old superbly pushed a Moore header to safety.

Moore, fouled by Pawel Dawidowicz, earned a free-kick and Williams flighted it towards him. Moore got clean contact on the cross and sent a header spinning towards the top corner only for Szczesny to intercept.

It was the kind of stop Neville Southall, among the heroes of yesteryear up in the stands, would have been proud of. Poland struggled to mute Moore and the striker led Piotrowski into taking a booking after clipping his heels on halfway.

As the end of normal time loomed, things got tetchy. Wilson twisted and turned down the right in an attempt to unravel the Poland back line but offered just enough encouragement to the Arsenal defender Jakub Kiwior to steal the ball.

Wales supporters tried to help their team over the line. “Don’t take me home,” came the chant from the stands. Connor Roberts, who picked up an injury, left the field in tears. It would not be the last heartache of a nerve-shredding night.

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