Wales edged a scrappy game in Paris as a Gareth McAuley own goal saw the Dragons win 1-0 and end the Northern Ireland fairytale at the last-16 stage.
It was a poor game for long spells, but in the end, one excellent moment from Gareth Bale was the difference, his pinpoint cross into the heart of the Northern Ireland six yard box forcing McAuley to turn the ball into his own net.
Bale has now been involved in 13 of Wales' last 18 goals, scoring ten and assisting three. He was quiet for large spells of this game, but the mark of a good player is the ability to be decisive at such times and his assist proved to be crucial here.
Northern Ireland ended the game with three strikers on the pitch as they chased an equaliser, but it was to no avail as Wales came out on top.
Stuart Dallas had the game's first shot in anger. Northern Ireland worked the ball forward well, with Dallas teed up on the edge of the box. Though he didn't catch it well and it was at a decent height, it was on target and forced Wayne Hennessy into a good save.
Wales had a goal correctly ruled out for offside when Sam Vokes headed powerfully downward into the six yard box and Aaron Ramsey toke poked the ball over the line. Norn Iron 'keeper Michael McGovern looked to have the original header covered.
Jamie Ward tried his luck from distance in the 23rd minute with Hennessy tipping the effort over the bar. Three minutes later Gareth Bale had his first effort of the day from distance and it was a poor one, flying harmlessly wide of the far post. Two minutes later, Kyle Lafferty head over from a Jonny Evans long ball.
Chances were few and far between. Chris Gunter needed to maintain his concentration to clear a dangerous Aaron Hughes cross towards the back post from the right-wing in the 36thminute.
Dallas was arriving right on cue for what would have been a point-blank header. Four minutes later, Ben Davies needed to be similarly alert to clear a dangerous Northern Ireland free-kick towards the back post, with Craig Cathcart lurking with intent.
In the 53rd minute, Aaron Ramsey put it on a plate for Vokes but he headed wide having not connected with it properly. Three minutes later, Oliver Norwood tested Hennessy but his effort was gathered at the second attempt.
In the 58th minute, Wales won a free-kick in prime Bale territory. The Real Madrid winger got the requisite dip he was looking for but, unlike England's Joe Hart in the group stage, found an equal in McGovern here who beat it away.
Michael O'Neill tore into Norwood after one poor corner delivery, the Northern Ireland boss keenly aware that those type of set-piece opportunities can't be wasted lightly at this level. He will have been livid when a free-kick moments later didn't beat the first man.
James Chester did well in the 72nd minute to out-muscle Kyle Lafferty in a chase for the ball down the left flank. Chester was momentarily wrong-side of the striker – had Lafferty got in ahead of him, he was one-on-one with Hennessy. Given the travails of both sides in front of goal, it would take an own goal to break the deadlock on 75 minutes.
Wales worked the ball forward, with Ramsey playing it to Bale on the left flank. His ball was low and fierce into the heart of the six yard box and, as tends to be the case with such crosses, it only needed a touch – and unfortunately for Gareth McAuley, his outstretched leg provided it. There was little he could do with Hal Robson-Kanu arriving behind him.
The game was held up in the 80th minute when the two Williams, Ashley and Jonathan, collided into the each other, the former coming through to clear a loose ball and the latter – the far smaller man – bearing the brunt of his skipper's sheer physicality. In the end, both men managed to get back and carry on, aware of what was at stake.
There was a fear that Ashley Williams' pride would cost his side as he very clearly couldn't move his left arm after the collision but refused to come off – he could bee seen screaming “It's fine!” towards Chris Coleman on the Welsh bench as he readied James Collins to come on.
There would be one more chance for Northern Ireland as they won a corner in stoppage time. McGovern sprinted into the penalty area, throwing some bizarre shapes as he did so in an attempt to upset the Welsh defence. However, Niall McGinn's delivery was poor, unable to beat the first man, which fittingly was Gareth Bale. He headed away and that was that.
Wales: Wayne Hennessy; Chris Gunter, James Chester, Ashley Williams, Ben Davies, Neil Taylor; Joe Allen, Joe Ledley (Jonathan Williams, 62), Aaron Ramsey; Gareth Bale; Sam Vokes (Hal Robson-Kanu, 55).
Subs Not Used: Danny Ward (GK), Owain Fon Williams (GK), David Cotterill, James Collins, David Vaughan, George Williams, Ashley Richards, David Edwards, Andy King, Simon Church.
Bookings: N Taylor (58).
Northern Ireland: Michael McGovern; Aaron Hughes, Gareth McAuley (Josh Magennis, 84), Craig Cathcart, Jonny Evans; Jamie Ward (Conor Washington, 69), Steven Davis, Corry Evans, Oliver Norwood (Niall McGinn, 79), Stuart Dallas; Kyle Lafferty.
Subs not used: Alan Mannus (GK), Roy Carroll (GK), Luke McCullough, Conor McLaughlin, Lee Hodson, Will Grigg, Chris Baird, Patrick McNair, Shane Ferguson.
Bookings: S Dallas (43), S Davies (67), A Ramsay (90+3).
Referee: Martin Atkinson (ENG).
Extratime Man of the Match: Aaron Ramsey (Wales).
Fran Reilly joined Extratime.ie in February 2015 having previously written for the Drogheda/Fingal Independents, loi19.com and the Cork City matchday programme. Though only part of the ET family for a relatively short time, the Donaghmede native has already had the opportunity to cover League of Ireland clubs both domestically and in Europe, as well as Republic of Ireland internationals. He can count Martin O'Neill, Roy Keane and Dutch footballing legend Ruud Gullit amongst those he has come face-to-face with during his line of ET work. He still hopes to someday meet Henrik Larsson.
Fran was once sent to watch Lionel Messi play in the Aviva Stadium for Barcelona but left feeling underwhelmed as his performance fell some way short of replicating Wes Hoolahan's against Deportivo la Coruna in August 2004. That famous night was enough to make Fran a Shels fan and he even pulled on the red shirt himself once for Owen Heary's tribute match in November 2013. Hilariously, he saw a penalty saved by unforgiving goalkeeper Lee Murphy, then at Bohemians.
His one day spell as a member of the Extratime media six-a-side panel fared no better, his status as a reporter coming under threat following a string of less than inspirational performances. However, he convinced the ET hierarchy to persevere with him so he lingers on, covering whatever clubs he can reach by public transport. You can follow Fran on Twitter (@FranTomReilly) where he spends most of his time retweeting other people's LOI views and news and claiming them as his own.
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