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Fans arrive at the Cardiff City Stadium

(AFP via Getty Images)

Wales are one win away from ending their 64-year wait for a place at the World Cup as they face a Ukraine team who are on the verge of completing one of the most remarkable qualification stories in the history of the tournament.

An electric atmosphere awaits in Cardiff as Wales host the play-off final for the final European place at the Qatar World Cup, after the match was delayed due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Despite the ongoing war and amid emotional scenes at Hampden on Wednesday, Ukraine produced a stunning performance to break Scotland’s hearts in the semi-final, with Wales having already progressed past Austria back in March.

Gareth Bale was key for Wales as he produced a magical double to defeat Austria and a nation’s hopes will once again turn towards the forward at the Cardiff City Stadium. If Bale was to guide Wales to a World Cup place it would add to his legend with the national team, after previous heroics in qualifying for the European Championships.

Ukraine will have been left drained by their efforts in Glasgow four days ago but their players have been inspired by the opportunity to provide joy, hope and pride for a country that suffered in the face of the Russian invasion. Oleksandr Zinchenko has led his side superbly and if Ukraine were to advance to the World Cup it would represent a momentous victory amid the most challenging of circumstances. Follow live updates from Wales vs Ukraine, below:

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Wales vs Ukraine

So Wales make nine changes from their midweek match while Ukraine’s side stays the same. Will Wales benefit from fresh legs or will Ukraine be able to carry momentum from their semi-final win? Certainly Ukraine were impressive against Scotland and will be filled with confidence.

Ukraine players and fans celebrate Roman Yaremchuk (centre) scoring in the 3-1 World Cup play-off win against Scotland at Hampden Park (Jane Barlow/PA)

(PA Wire)

Lawrence Ostlere5 June 2022 16:06

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Ukraine line-up

Ukraine keep the same XI which beat Scotland at Hampden Park in midweek.

Ukraine: Bushchan; Karavaev, Zabarnyi, Matvienko, Mykolenko; Stepanenko; Yarmolenko, Malinovskyi, Zinchenko, Tsygankov; Yaremchuk.

Lawrence Ostlere5 June 2022 16:04

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Ukraine players ready for World Cup play-off final in Cardiff after Hampden heroics

Ukraine left everything on the pitch at Hampden, to the extent that they did not have the energy to celebrate Artem Dovbyk’s late goal in the south west corner of the stadium. Their challenge now is to go again in Cardiff on Sunday, where another ferocious atmosphere awaits for a nation who have not qualified for a World Cup in over 70 years. “It’s difficult to imagine it will be louder than here,” Malinovskyi smiled.

“I think it will be a similar game,” he added. “We have four days to recover, I think it’s enough, and the important thing is to be ready mentally. They play at home also and it is a final, they will push but we must be ready to play calmly, not force it, and play smartly in this game also.” Stepanenko nodded. “Yes,” he said. “We will be ready.”

They have already given their people so much. Those in Ukraine who were forced to watch underground and in shelters as air-raid sirens wailed across the country had a moment to celebrate. The Ukraine fans bathed in yellow and blue in the corner stayed long after the full-time whistle, soaking up the scene and embracing the pride that only a victory like this could bring.

But deep inside Hampden in the Ukraine dressing room it was an altogether different picture, one that spoke of a job that is only half complete. “We need to be calm and focus on the next game,” Malinovskyi warned. “This win is important but if we don’t win the next game it’s for nothing.”

Jamie Braidwood5 June 2022 15:45

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Wales line-up

Robert Page brings back his big-hitters after a heavily rotated side lost to Poland in the Nations League in mid-week. Here is how Wales line up this evening:

Wales: Hennessey; Ampadu, Rodon, B Davies; C Roberts, Ramsey, Allen, N Williams; Bale, James, Moore.

Lawrence Ostlere5 June 2022 15:36

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Ukraine players ready for World Cup play-off final in Cardiff after Hampden heroics

Once the dust had settled on a victory that could be heard across the world the reaction from the Ukrainian players was as calm and collected as the performance that had preceded it. The country is now one win away from qualifying for a World Cup amid war and yet on an evening of intense emotions at Hampden the defining characteristics of Ukraine’s display was of cool heads and minds rather than the burning passion of their hearts.

That had been key as well to a remarkable team performance on an extraordinary night. It was impossible not to be moved by the sight of the Ukraine players emerging into the late Glasgow sunshine draped in their flag and for a moment, as a country’s hopes narrowed on the 11 players standing together on the Hampden pitch, the sound of the national anthem brought tears to their eyes.

“This game for our nation was unbelievable,” said Taras Stepanenko, who had not played a competitive fixture since December and yet excelled in midfield to help steer Ukraine to a crucial 3-1 win in the play-off semi-final. The players who collapsed in exhaustion at the full-time whistle returned to the dressing room to find hundreds of messages from family and friends, as well as those in the army currently fighting on the front line.

“I feel so good and so happy that it gives some positive energy for the people in Ukraine who are in the war, soldiers and normal people,” said Ruslan Malinovskyi, another standout performer at Hampden alongside Oleksandr Zinchenko. “We have a lot of contact with a lot of people on the front. They texted before the game saying, ‘Guys we are with you. Do your job on the pitch and we’ll do our job to protect our country.’”

Jamie Braidwood5 June 2022 15:30

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Jamie Braidwood: Clever, clinical and cohesive Ukraine earned their win over Scotland on sporting merit

There was already so much to admire about this Ukraine team but perhaps something had been overlooked along the way. As they progressed in their mission to qualify for the World Cup, it was not heart and bravery that saw them overcome Scotland, although that of course played its part. But amid the emotion – and in the face of what might have been an overwhelmingly intimidating atmosphere – this was a clever, clinical and cohesive performance that left no question over who deserves to face Wales in the World Cup play-off final on Sunday, and that is solely talking about sporting merit.

As Artem Dovbyk ran clear to seal Ukraine’s 3-1 win in the final seconds of stoppage time, Oleksandr Zinchenko, who played the pass, collapsed to the pitch. Dovbyk celebrated on his own in the corner – his teammates had nothing left to give. They had left it all out there to claim a victory that is worth more than football. In the corner of Hampden, the Ukraine fans who had supported their team so proudly came together to salute the players who were the heroes on the field.

Ukraine’s head coach Oleksandr Petrakov let out a roar that spoke of the importance of the occasion and for his country to be victorious on this stage. He had told his team not to fear Hampden. After all, this is a team who have faced invasion and the shelling of the Russians. They were made to hang on for the victory but this was gameplan executed with cold and calculated precision. It was a remarkable performance on what was an extraordinary night.

Jamie Braidwood5 June 2022 15:15

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Miguel Delaney: Ukraine bring light and joy to unite country in pursuit of World Cup

It was a scene that, on its own, was almost as powerful as the performance. It showed how this had gone beyond sport, that it was a football moment like few others.

Artem Dovbyk had just put the ball past Craig Gordon to put Ukraine one game from the World Cup, in a moment that would usually have brought images of euphoria. This was something else, though.

Dovbyk was momentarily left to celebrate on his own, because most of his teammates just sank to the ground. A striking quietness engulfed Hampden Park, that was unlike anything you ever really experience in a stadium, and reflected the extremes this had gone to.

The Ukrainian players left all their emotion on the pitch, to quote their manager Oleksandr Petrakov, so could do little more than lie there. They were utterly exhausted but it was that kind of exhilarated exhaustion that only comes from going to the very limits.

They aren’t done yet, of course. “We go to Wales,” Petrakov said.

Jamie Braidwood5 June 2022 15:00

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Richard Jolly: Bale on the brink of immortality with Wales’ epic quest to seize World Cup dream

Brazil were still the reigning world champions when Gareth Bale entered the international stage. One of his opponents as he made his debut, Trinidad and Tobago’s Russell Latapy, was born in the 1960s. Bale was two decades his junior and the 2006 World Cup lay in the future.

If 2006 has a particular meaning to Ukraine, quarter-finalists in their only World Cup to date, it frames Bale’s career, too. This has been an epic quest. He has been the British game’s most successful export and, whether or not he is the greatest Welsh footballer – John Charles, Cliff Jones, Ian Rush and Ryan Giggs have competing claims – he has a compelling case to be the finest ever Wales player. He has dragged them to the brink of a first World Cup in 64 years.

Without his hat-trick away in Belarus last September, there may have been no play-off. He has not scored for Real Madrid since then. He went into March’s semi-final against Austria with 77 minutes of club football in six months and delivered a match-winning double; the first a sensational free kick, the second a sharp shot on the turn. Now, after a mere 20 minutes in a further two months at Real, Ukraine beckon. Bale’s cause may pale into comparison with theirs but he can seem football’s most patriotic Welshman, drawing inspiration from his country’s colours.

Jamie Braidwood5 June 2022 14:45

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Ukraine flag from battleground to hang in dressing room for World Cup play-off

Manager Oleksandr Petrakov has revealed a Ukraine flag from the battleground will hang in their dressing room for Sunday’s World Cup play-off final against Wales.

Ukraine are one win away from reaching the World Cup in Qatar later this year, despite the ongoing conflict in their country.

Russia invaded Ukraine over 100 days ago and a bloody war has brought heavy casualties on both sides.

Ukraine’s players are desperate to give hope to their people by qualifying for the World Cup, and Petrakov’s side are able to count on the support of most neutrals around the world.

Jamie Braidwood5 June 2022 14:30

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Bale: No let-up against Ukraine with Wales seeking World Cup dream

Gareth Bale says he would make no apology to war-torn Ukrainians were Wales to deny them their World Cup dream, and suggested that his future does not rest on the outcome of Sunday’s play-off final.

Bale, who says he has had “loads” of offers since his nine-year stay at Real Madrid came to an end, knows about the emotion that Ukraine will bring into the Cardiff clash given what is happening in their homeland.

Ukraine has now been at war for more than 100 days since Russia invaded its territory in February, with horrific stories unfolding each day from the front line.

Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko has spoken of his dream of reaching the World Cup in Qatar later this year and giving the Ukrainian people some richly deserved feelings of pride and happiness.

But Wales captain Bale, though expressing sympathy for Ukraine’s plight, insisted that securing the Dragons’ first appearance at a World Cup for 64 years was the only thing on Welsh minds.

Jamie Braidwood5 June 2022 14:15