Wales stayed top of their Nations League group with a hard-fought 1-0 victory over the Republic of Ireland at the Cardiff City Stadium.
David Brooks headed home from close range after 66 minutes to maintain Wales’ one-point lead over Finland – 2-1 winners in Bulgaria – before the two teams meet in their final Group B4 fixture in Cardiff on Wednesday.
It was Wales’ fourth 1-0 win in the group and leaves Ireland – who had Jeff Hendrick sent off in stoppage time for denying Tyler Roberts a goalscoring opportunity – facing a relegation decider against Bulgaria in Dublin on Wednesday.
But Ireland might feel that Wales should have been reduced to 10 men after 37 minutes when Joe Morrell lashed out at Jayson Molumby.
Both men were booked in the incident but many referees may have chosen to show Morrell the red card instead of yellow for reacting to the Irishman’s shove on him with a petulant kick.
Gareth Bale was back from injury to lead a Wales side unbeaten in nine competitive games – a sequence stretching back to June 2019.
Bale formed a front three with Brooks and Daniel James as Kieffer Moore, so influential in Wales’ fortunes over the past year, was named among the substitutes.
This was the sixth meeting between the two sides since March 2017, and while Wales were in good form Ireland were short on goals and confidence.
It was a year and a day since their last win – a friendly victory over New Zealand – and Stephen Kenny’s side had gone eight hours of football without scoring.
With David McGoldrick recently retired from international football, and Aaron Connolly and Callum Robinson absent for one reason or another, Kenny was short on attacking options and plumped for Norwich teenager Adam Idah to lead the line.
Ireland’s start, however, belied their recent results and Robbie Brady’s second-minute free-kick almost led to a shock lead.
Shane Duffy was unmarked at the far post but the defender could not get a clean contact on the cross and it drifted harmlessly wide.
Wales escaped again after struggling to clear Daryl Horgan’s cross. The ball fell invitingly to Brady on the edge of the penalty area and his shot flew just above the crossbar.
Wales rallied with Brooks’ deflected shot gathered safely by Darren Randolph in the Ireland goal before Bale spotted an opportunity from 35 yards out.
The distance appeared against Bale but his free-kick dipped wickedly in its final moments and clipped the top of the crossbar.
Ireland were still quicker to the ball all over the pitch and Danny Ward had to kick away James McClean’s effort after more confusion in the home penalty area.
The contest became more feisty as half-time approached and Molumby and Morrell were both booked after a tangle in which the Wales midfielder was lucky not to see red for a petulant kick.
Brady fired over just before the break and the interval allowed Wales to regroup and enjoy more possession, although a booking for Ben Davies ruled the Tottenham defender out of the Finland game.
Apart from a scuffed Bale effort though, chances were rare and caretaker boss Robert Page changed personnel and system with the arrival of Moore for wing-back Rhys Norrington-Davies just after the hour mark.
Moore’s first contribution was to be booked for what Czech Republic referee Petr Ardeleanu considered a dive in the Ireland penalty area, but Wales were ahead within a minute.
James’ cross was met by Bale at the far post, outjumping his Tottenham team-mate Matt Doherty, and Brooks bravely headed home his second Wales goal under pressure from Duffy.
Brooks and Moore were denied by Randolph in the closing stages, but Wales held on to keep a seventh successive clean sheet in competitive football to boost their Nations League promotion hopes.