Wales's hopes of qualifying for UEFA EURO 2004™ suffered a significant setback as Mark Hughes' side slipped to a 1-0 defeat in Serbia and Montenegro.
Tight at the top
Wales remain top of qualifying Group 9, but have now played the same number of games as second-placed Italy, over whom they hold a two-point lead. Hughes' team next face Italy in Milan on 6 September, before taking on Finland in Cardiff four days later and ending with the reverse fixture against Serbia and Montenegro on 11 October.
The home side were on top throughout and largely controlled the game. However, a debut goal from Dragan Mladenovic was all that separated the sides at the end of 90 minutes, the FK Crvena Zvezda midfield player scoring after 73 minutes in front of his home crowd in Belgrade.
Serbia and Montenegro began the brighter and might have taken an early lead as Darko Kovacevic turned a low cross narrowly wide. Wales were pressed back inside their own half in the early exchanges, with Mark Pembridge deflecting Dejan Stankovic's shot over the crossbar, while goalkeeper Paul Jones was called upon to produce a smart reaction save from Mladenovic from the resulting corner.
The home team continued to press, and came close to breaking the deadlock just past the half-hour as Stankovic's 35-metre shot beat Jones only to rebound back off the post.
The game followed a similar pattern after half-time, with Wales relying on counterattacks to try to unsettle their opponents, while PSV Eindhoven striker Mateja Kežman failed to find the target when well-placed. However, 17 minutes from time the hosts did finally break through, as a loose ball following a corner fell kindly for Mladenovic, who made no mistake.
The goal marked the first time Wales had fallen behind in the EURO 2004™ qualifying campaign, but the away side might have drawn level almost immediately, as substitute Robert Earnshaw burst clear and rounded goalkeeper Dragoslav Jevric only to see his shot cleared off the line by Mladen Krstajic's last-ditch lunge.
Wales threw more and more men forward in search of an equaliser that would have earned the point they needed to guarantee a play-off place, with Ryan Giggs forcing a good save from Jevric before Danny Gabbidon's header flew just over as the home side held on.
The three points meant that Serbia and Montenegro, under new coach Ilija Petkovic, revitalised their own hopes of reaching then finals. Wales lead Group 9 with 12 points from five games, with Italy on ten points. Petkovic's side are a further two points adrift, but have played a game more than the top two and must win both of their final two games – at home against Italy on 10 September and the away match in Cardiff – to have a realistic chance of qualifying.