Wales will go into the home leg of their UEFA EURO 2004™ play-off on level terms after a disciplined performance earned a goalless draw against an attack-minded Russian side in Moscow.
The home side spent much of the game camped in the visitors' half, but were denied the space to create clear-cut chances for their usually prolific front-line. Although Wales had few efforts on goal of their own, they seemed increasingly comfortable as time went on, knowing that on Wednesday they will have a sell-out crowd behind them in Cardiff.
Russia were able to start with defender Vadim Evseev, who had previously left the camp with his daughter undergoing heart surgery in Germany. However, Yegor Titov's toe injury restricted him to a place on the bench, with Dmitri Bulykin, scorer of a hat-trick against Switzerland, leading the line. Mark Pembridge, Craig Bellamy, Simon Davies, Rhys Weston and Robert Page's absences meant that Welsh captain Gary Speed reverted to midfield alongside Robbie Savage - whose fitness had been in doubt all week - and Darren Barnard played at left-back.
Russia's flying start
Having scored 15 goals in four home qualifiers, and with only one qualification defeat in Moscow ever on their record, Russia began full of confidence and overran Wales for the first ten minutes. Dmitri Loskov forced Paul Jones to save in the opening seconds, and Bulykin shot just past the far post as the Russian attack caught out the visiting defence.
Gradually, though, the hard-working Welsh players began to blunt the threat from the likes of Dmitri Sytchev and Loskov, and Viktor Onopko, winning his 109th senior cap, was forced to show his experience by lone away striker John Hartson. Wales were mainly moving forward on the counterattack, with Ryan Giggs rampant on the left, but they came no closer than a Jason Koumas free-kick saved by Sergei Ovchinnikov, one of five FC Lokomotiv Moskva players on their home ground.
Daniel Gabbidon's vital saving tackle on Sytchev then prevented a great shooting chance as Bulykin's pace again caused Wales problems, and from the resultant corner Jones was forced to tip over an Aleksei Smertin effort. Bulykin then turned a shot over, but at the other end Speed saw a header on goal blocked as the half ended on level terms - although a half-time incident earned Ovchinnikov a booking and suspension for Wednesday.
Mostovoi heads over
The pattern of Russian attacks and swift Welsh breaks continued after half-time. A relieved Dmitri Sennikov turned over a dangerous Koumas ball across the home goal, while Aleksandr Mostovoi immediately headed over a Dmitri Alenichev cross at the other end. However, Wales were tightening their midfield leaving Russia short of space as they searched for an aggregate lead to take to Cardiff.
With 22 minutes left, Mostovoi earned a booking that left him suspended for the return, but soon afterwards lively Russian substitute Rolan Gusev curled a free-kick just over the bar. A Gusev corner then fell into the path of Loskov, but his shot was blocked as time began to run out for the frustrated home team.
Bulykin's next effort met a similar fate and Jones twice had to save late efforts from half-time substitute Marat Izmailov, but Wales had held on, having showed a spirit that suggested their long run without qualifying for a major tournament may yet be close to an end.