Wales pointed to their wastefulness in front of goal as a major factor in their failure to yield victory in their previous two qualifiers but in Estonia they were grateful for their opponents’ profligacy, with Kieffer Moore’s first-half tap-in enough to take three points in Tallinn.
It was a much-needed win but they still lost ground in the race for second spot in Group E – which guarantees a play-off place – with the Czech Republic beating Belarus by a bigger margin. In the end a nervy Wales were fortunate to sneak victory on the Baltic Sea, with the Estonia substitute Vlasiy Sinyavskiy drawing a superb save from the goalkeeper, Danny Ward, late on.
It looks increasingly likely that Wales will need to take at least a point off the runaway Group E leaders, Belgium, in their final game next month – a match that represents their game in hand on the Czech Republic – if they are to finish as runners-up. The good news is their captain, Gareth Bale, is expected to return from a hamstring injury for that camp, which begins against Belarus in Cardiff.
“There are two cup finals left – that is how we are going to treat it,” said the interim Wales manager, Robert Page. “At home, full house. Bring it on.”
The bad news is they will be without Moore for their penultimate game through suspension after the striker picked up another harsh booking. No player has scored more goals for Wales than Moore since his debut two years ago and the Cardiff striker, who was forced off with an eye problem following a whack in the face inside the box from the Estonia defender Marten Kuusk, will prove a big loss.
“He’s prone to getting bookings and he doesn’t get a lot of protection at times,” Page said. “When you jump, you can’t not jump without using your arms. Unless referees have played any level and understand the mechanics of how you jump, it’s difficult.”
Moore’s goal stemmed from a corner, won following a fine stop by the Estonia goalkeeper, Karl Hein. Wales clicked, with Daniel James nipping inside and spreading the ball right to Connor Roberts, who wrapped his left foot round the ball before sending a delicious shot towards the far post. Hein palmed the ball away but Wales prospered from the resulting corner. Chris Mepham met James’s inswinger and, though Hein managed to repel his header and then Aaron Ramsey’s attempts to nod in, he could not prevent Moore poking home from a few inches.
In the buildup Page had stressed how Estonia provide an attacking threat – they have scored against every team except Wales in this campaign – and they were presented with a wonderful chance to bare their teeth when Harry Wilson played a risky ball across his own 18-yard box. Sergei Zenjov – on the scoresheet as Estonia recorded their first competitive win in three years on Friday – intercepted the pass and sent a shot goalwards. Ward threw himself at it to make a block but the Wales defender Joe Rodon was still required to bail out his teammate on the goalline.
Wales survived a couple of let-offs in the second half too, the first coming five minutes after the interval. Markus Poom, son of the former Derby and Sunderland goalkeeper Mart, who is on the Estonia coaching staff, sent a teasing free-kick into the box and Erik Sorga, who evaded the attention of Joe Allen, glanced a header on to the roof of Ward’s goal. It was a family affair for the Pooms, with Markus’s younger brother, Andreas, singing the Estonia national anthem before kick-off.
Another scare came on 63 minutes, when Mattias Kait charged through the middle of the Wales defence. The Estonia midfielder wriggled clear of Ethan Ampadu but, one on one with Ward, his shot lacked conviction.
Ward was given a hearty reception from the travelling Wales support during the warm-up following his error in Prague on Friday and he was straight into the action with a smart save to keep out a shot from Taijo Teniste from an acute angle with less than a minute on the clock.
Estonia would not go quietly and a creaking Wales backline endured an anxious finish, Ward sprawling to his left to deny Sinyavskiy and resume the role of hero. “We posed more of a threat to ourselves than they did [to us],” Page said. “Sometimes you have to win ugly.”