The games just keep getting bigger for Wales. They secured an extra-time victory over Bosnia to move one step closer to reaching the World Cup and a first major tournament. For the men’s side, so often the protagonist has been Gareth Bale but it was another Welsh icon who these days resides stateside that unlocked a stubborn Bosnia defence to qualify for the next round.
Jess Fishlock’s superb sweeping volley at the end of first-half stoppage time in extra time was enough to earn a trip to Zurich to face Switzerland on Tuesday. Fishlock is Wales’s most decorated player – last week she won the NWSL Shield with Seattle-based OL Reign and has twice won the Champions League – but her 35th goal on her 135th cap was the kind of match-winning moment that may well eclipse the lot. Fishlock sprinted towards the halfway line in celebration with every outfield player in hot pursuit, with many knee-sliding on to the turf in delirium.
“It’s a phenomenal moment that I never really thought I would see in a Wales shirt,” Fishlock said. “The celebrations were crazy. I think it is probably my best and most important goal for Wales. I remember saying to Haz [Angharad James]: ‘Go over there and tell Rachel [Rowe] to whip it into the front post and I’ll get on the end of it.’ I was frustrated with our lofted balls and them always getting the first contact. Thankfully, they listened to me.” Then arrived a broad smile.
For so long it seemed as though Wales’s night was destined to end in misery – they had four goals disallowed in normal time – but eventually triumphed when Fishlock, one of three players to have an effort chalked off for offside, converted Rowe’s free-kick. Wales keep breaking records, too, this the biggest crowd at a Wales women’s game and while the 15,200 here had to do their fair share of suffering, with Kayleigh Green twice denied by the offside flag before the substitute Ffion Morgan and Fishlock saw goals ruled out, they left with beaming smiles.
The two best-ranked playoff second-round winners will secure spots at the World Cup, with the other victorious side going into the inter-confederation play-offs in New Zealand in February. Gemma Grainger’s side always looked the more likely to reach the next stage but Bosnia proved resilient and their goalkeeper, Almina Hodzic, made a series of fine saves, the pick of the bunch an alert first-half stop to help Ceri Holland’s powerful drive from an acute angle on to the crossbar before Angharad James saw the rebound blocked.
At the other end Laura O’Sullivan made an instinctive save early on to prevent Matija Aleksic with an outstretched boot but the Wales goalkeeper otherwise had a satisfyingly quiet night as Bosnia failed to fashion clear chances.
Rowe said she “nearly screamed the roof down” after being drawn against Bosnia, the lowest ranked team in these playoffs, but those words seemed to stoke the fire in Wales’ opponents. The Wales centre-back Hayley Ladd inadvertently gave O’Sullivan a fright 10 minutes into the second half when her header to intercept Melisa Hasanbegovic’s through ball dropped wide of the Wales goal with the goalkeeper stranded.
But after that scare it was one-way traffic, with Green having the second of two goals ruled out. Morgan arrived off the bench and thought she had found a winner on 83 minutes, only for Rhiannon Roberts to be deemed offside in the buildup to converting from close range. Fishlock was then denied but rose to the occasion in extra time. Fishlock peeled off her marker to meet Rowe’s curled free-kick and picked out the top corner with the sweetest of strikes. “Big players turn up in big games and that’s what Jess did for this team,” Grainger said.