Wales’ hopes of qualifying automatically for the 2022 World Cup look to be all but over after they were held to a deeply frustrating goalless draw at home to group minnows Estonia.
Despite an initially celebratory atmosphere at Cardiff City Stadium as it hosted an international match without crowd restrictions for the first time since 2019, Wales failed miserably to live up to the occasion.
It was Estonia, winless in Group E and ranked 110th in the world, who came closest to scoring in the first half as Mattias Kait hit the crossbar.
Wales had several chances to score after the break, but Gareth Bale and Tyler Roberts were both denied by excellent saves from Estonia’s teenage Arsenal goalkeeper Karl Hein, while Bale also hit the post.
Wales are now nine points adrift of group leaders in Belgium. Although Robert Page’s side have played two games fewer, they now have to win all their remaining matches – November’s home game against Belgium included – and hope the world’s highest-ranked side drop points before then as well.
With that in mind, the play-offs now look like Wales’ most realistic route to a first World Cup since 1958.
They are already effectively guaranteed a play-off place thanks to their success in the Nations League, but finishing second in this World Cup qualifying group could secure Wales a more favourable draw in that knockout stage.
The draw with Estonia keeps Wales third in Group E, behind the Czech Republic in second on goal difference and having played one game fewer.
When Wales were drawn alongside Belgium and the Czech Republic, many might have expected the play-offs to be their best hope of ending their long absence from World Cups.
But nobody would have envisaged a home match against Estonia as a potential stumbling block.
This was a dreadful result against a team that had lost all three of their previous qualifiers and conceded 15 goals in the process.
Wales had been warned, having experienced just three days earlier the threat posed by opponents significantly lower than them in the Fifa world rankings.
On Sunday they trailed Belarus 2-1 before Gareth Bale saved them once again, completing a hat-trick deep into added time to snatch a dramatic 3-2 win.
Wales had actually taken an early lead against Belarus before unravelling, and there was a sinking sense of deja vu about the way they squandered another promising start against Estonia.
Energised by their jubilant returning fans, Wales started rapidly and should have been ahead after just 40 seconds as right-back Chris Gunter burst forward and crossed low for Harry Wilson, whose first-time side-footed shot went wide.
Chances for Bale and Roberts followed as Wales streamed forward but, once those attacks started to dry up, Estonia grew in confidence.
The away side were happy to defend deep in numbers and, as the first half drew to a close, Kait clipped the top of the bar with a curling effort from 20 yards.
Wales lacked creativity in open play but had set-pieces and a Ben Davies free-kick found Bale, whose header was superbly saved by Hein.
On the one occasion, Wales did unlock the Estonian defence with a fine through ball from Joe Morrell, Roberts could not capitalise as Hein blocked his low effort.
Their situation grew increasingly desperate and it seemed like they would have to rely on another moment of inspiration from their saviour Bale. But with seven minutes left Hein saved his prodded shot before the Real Madrid forward headed the rebound against the post.
It might have been an even worse night had Danny Ward not made a sprawling late save to deny Estonia captain Konstantin Vassiljev.
Avoiding defeat was of no real consolation for Wales, whose players looked dejected after the final whistle as they reflected on one of their most disappointing results in home competitive matches in recent years.