Gareth Bale and co were well-versed in the Czech Republic’s aerial threats but one of the smallest players on the pitch powered in amid the land of the giants to get Wales’s World Cup qualifying campaign up and running in Cardiff.
Daniel James sent a booming header back across goal nine minutes from time after meeting Bale’s delicious cross to puncture the visitors’ early promise in a spiky game in which both teams finished with 10 men, though both red cards for Patrik Schick and Connor Roberts could be deemed dubious. Wales lived dangerously at times and Joe Rodon made a match-saving block to deny Ondrej Celustka a last-gasp equaliser.
For Wales, this game fell into the must-not-lose category and that pressure translated into a tentative start, in which they offered the Czech Republic plenty of encouragement. Jakub Jankto sent a curling effort wide of a post after drifting into space on the edge of the D and moments later smacked the ground in frustration after rattling the side-netting having seized on a Wales slip. Much of the Czechs’ craft flowed through Jankto and he picked out Schick with a hanging cross but the striker failed to engineer a route to goal.
The lively Schick had a shot blocked by Chris Mepham approaching the interval and despite spending the first half on the back foot it was Wales who passed up the best opening nine minutes before the interval. Neco Williams eluded West Ham’s Vladimir Coufal on the left flank and his cross caught the Czech centre-back Celustka on his heels in the six-yard box. Bale bolted in front of Jan Boril to meet the ball on the volley but failed to connect cleanly, allowing the goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik to palm over.
Wales spent the first half firefighting, typified by Joe Morrell snatching the ball from Jankto just as the Czech midfielder sensed blood on the counterattack.
Morrell replaced the injured Joe Allen in the only change from the team that started last week’s defeat to Belgium, with the St Pauli defender James Lawrence cleared to play by German authorities and Danny Ward again preferred to Wayne Hennessey in goal.
Wales’ options from the bench were limited after Hal Robson-Kanu, Tyler Roberts and Rabbi Matondo were sent home on Monday after breaching the curfew at the team hotel last weekend. The visitors had their own issues to contend with on arrival in Cardiff, with the Slavia Prague defender Ondrej Kudela selected despite being the subject of Uefa and police investigations after being accused of racially abusing Rangers’ Glen Kamara earlier this month. There had initially been fears over Kudela’s safety.
The crime that led Schick to being sent off a couple of minutes into the second half was not heinous but foolish, especially as it stemmed from the aftermath of a Czech attack. It looked rather harmless but the referee took a dim view of Schick’s decision to shove his hands towards the face of Roberts having grappled in an attempt to meet a free-kick into the box.
The sending-off turned the game into a tit-for-tat affair – a flurry of yellow cards was inevitable – but it was the Czechs who continued to ask more questions, with Lawrence superbly taking the ball off the toes of Lukas Provod as the striker bore down on goal having rounded an onrushing Ward.
The Czech captain Vladimir Darida later dispatched a dipping volley over the crossbar. By that point the Czechs had long sent on a forward in place of a defensive midfielder and Wales also called for more ammunition, with Kieffer Moore introduced up front.
Moore’s arrival helped counter the Czechs overwhelming height advantage but it was the 5ft 7in James who popped up to power in a winning goal. Bale brought Coufal to a standstill before hanging a superb cross towards the back post, where James leaped to beat his marker and power in a header.