TEN-MAN Wales withstood heavy Irish pressure to keep their World Cup 2018 hopes alive at the halfway stage.
This was billed as a must-win match for Chris Coleman’s men but a red card for defender Neil Taylor left them clinging on for a point in the final 20 minutes.
The hard-fought draw leaves Wales third in Group D, four points behind joint-leaders Serbia and Ireland with five games left to play.
The visitors were attempting to rediscover the form that took them all the way to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 after a sluggish start to this campaign.
And, with almost everyone available, the Coleman was able to name the same starting XI that overcame Belgium in that unforgettable quarter-final victory in Lille last summer.
In contrast, Ireland boss Martin O’Neill was hampered by a host of injuries and suspensions and he suffered a further blow just before kick-off as David Meyler had to replace James McCarthy after the warm-up.
But, backed by a capacity crowd at the Aviva Stadium, the hosts were certainly up for the fight.
Glenn Whelan had the first attempt at goal inside the first minute, sending a half volley well wide of Wayne Hennessey’s right-hand post from 25 yards out.
And there were early crunching tackles on Gareth Bale and Joe Allen that got the vociferous home fans cheering.
But the game soon settled into a pattern of Wales dominating possession and Ireland defending deep, with neither side creating a clear cut opening in the first half.
Star men Bale and Aaron Ramsey both looked rusty and Allen was Wales’ best performer in a poor first 45 minutes – so much so that he was the subject of a nasty looking elbow to the face from his Stoke City teammate Whelan on the stroke of half-time.
Things could only get better after the break and they did.
Sam Vokes replaced Hal Robson-Kanu and Wales immediately attacked with more intensity.
Ramsey surged into the box only to be halted by a John O’Shea body check before Bale produced the first shot on target – a free-kick that Darren Randolph easily held.
The Real Madrid man got more power into another effort moments later but his left-foot missile from 25 yards was just wide of Randolph’s far post.
Ramsey then picked up a Vokes knockdown and beat two men but his shot from the edge of the area was too weak and straight at the Irish goalkeeper.
There were moments of danger at the other end and Ashley Williams had to make a fantastic recovery tackle to stop Jon Walters getting on the end of Shane Long’s headed throughball just before the hour.
And, after the visitors conceded two dangerous free-kicks on the edge of the area, Long volleyed well wide as the ball sat up invitingly from a Williams half clearance.
Vokes also put a half chance wide as openings began to materialise for both sides in the closing stages.
As they approached the final 20 minutes of the match Wales appeared to be in a good position to find the winner they needed.
Then, in the space of two minutes, they suffered two hammer blows.
First Bale was penalised for following through on O’Shea as he tried to connect with a cross from the right and the yellow card shown by Italian referee Nicola Rizzoll means Wales’ talisman will miss the June qualifier against Serbia.
And then Taylor saw red for a wild lunge at Seamus Coleman that left the Everton defender with a suspected broken leg and changed the whole momentum of the match.
The hosts sensed blood and poured forward, roared on by the pumped up crowd.
James McClean saw one shot blocked and his second attempt was deflected inches wide of Wayne Hennessey’s right-hand post.
Bale almost snatched all three points on the break as he unleashed an unstoppable piledriver that had Randolph beaten but the ball shaved the outside of the post and it was honours even after a pulsating second half.
Wales: Hennessey; Chester, Williams, Davies; Gunter, Ledley (Richards, 72), Allen, Taylor; Ramsey, Bale; Robson-Kanu (Vokes, 46)
Subs not used: Ward, Fon Williams, King, MacDonald, Edwards, Wilson, Collins, Walsh, Bradshaw, Woodburn
Sent off: Taylor
Referee: Nicola Rizzoll (Italy)
Argus star man: Williams