Eighteen months after losing his job as starting goalkeeper, 35-year-old Wayne Hennessey backstopped the Wales national team to the 2022 World Cup Finals in Qatar later this season with a 1-0 victory over Ukraine in the UEFA play-off final on Sunday.
His nine saves ensured that Wales will be placed in Group B of the tournament, which will be its first appearance since 1958, where they will face the United States, England, and Iran.
The result brings Ukraine’s magical run toward its first World Cup berth since 2006 — the war-torn nation so proudly representing itself and its people 102 days into its conflict with Russia.
Andriy Yarmolenko, one of the greatest players the country has ever produced, who flew to his country’s border while playing with Aston Villa in England to save his wife and children, who bought and donated multiple ambulances for his hometown, is burdened with the most unfair of own goals to put Wales in the World Cup.
A free-kick from Gareth Bale in the 34th minute just flicked off the head of the diving winger, changing course and flying into the back of the net.
WALES OPEN UP THE SCORING IN CARDIFF 💥
Gareth Bale's free kick is flicked on by Yarmolenko and into the back of the net.
— The Athletic Soccer (@TheAthleticSCCR) June 5, 2022
Emerging from their locker room that was adorned by a flag sent to the team from the front lines, Ukraine almost found a fairytale start two minutes in when Manchester City star Oleksander Zinchenko’s free-kick rolled past an unsuspecting Hennessey and into the back of the net. But the attempt came before official Antonio Mateu Lahoz — who has his place booked in the World Cup already — blew his whistle to resume play.
With every reset, Ruslan Malinovskyi’s attempt seared into the grateful midsection of the Welsh keeper.
They found another glorious chance in the 12th minute when Roman Yaremchuk was played in behind the Welsh defense, but his low from the 15 yards out was pushed away by Hennessey.
The Ukrainians kept coming, another look falling to Zinchenko, whose hard shot was turned away by Hennessey in the 30th minute.
Out of largely nothing, however, Wales went in front in the 34th minute largely through its talisman in Bale — a sweetly struck free-kick from 25 yards out glancing off the head of Ukraine’s Andriy Yarmolenko and in.
It was ruled an own goal by Yarmolenko, a harsh ruling that put the darling nation behind.
The Welsh should have had a second in the 49th minute off a marauding run down the left wing from Dan James. After feeding Rubin Colwill, who worked his way into the Ukrainian box, a centering pass found Aaron Ramsey but it was skewed horrendously wide from just eight yards out.
Back came Urkaine with another brilliant opportunity to get on the board, but a cross that found Viktor Tsygankov right in front of goal was turned away by the feet of Hennessey in the 55th minute. The rebound quickly fell to Yaremchuk, but it missed the target.
Ukraine continued its assault on Wales, dominating the flow of play — but the hosts nearly put it away on the counter in the 76th minute.
Brennan Johnson hit the base of the left post off a one-time strike from a cross before Bale had a close-range chance turned away by the diving hand of Georgiy Buschchan.
One minute later, Zinchenko’s cross into the Welsh box was played down for Yarmolenko on the doorstep, but his shot was blocked by a sliding defender in Ben Davies.
Artem Dovbyk’s towering header looked destined for the top-right corner of the goal in the 74th minute, but Hennessey pulled out another soaring save to continue his brilliant day.