As Artem Dovbyk strained his neck muscles to power a left-wing cross towards the Welsh net, time slowed, Wales winced and a pocket of Ukrainians in Cardiff prepared to leap in to the rainy sky.
But Wayne Hennessey had other ideas. The Wales keeper, having, by his own admission, his "best game in a Welsh shirt," flung out a hand to deny Dovbyk and disappoint just about anyone outside of this country.
Hennessey’s name soon rang out around the Cardiff City Stadium, a sign of the heroics he’d had to perform to take his side to the World Cup and deny Ukraine. An own goal by Ukrainian captain Andriy Yarmolenko, following a Gareth Bale free kick, had been the difference, a cruel twist in what had been a tale of positivity for the war-torn country.
As the final whistle blew and the home fans exhaled a collective roar of relief, those dressed in yellow and blue kept their flags flying high and arms above their heads. As their players, and Bale, made their way towards the fans, Yarmolenko trailed behind, hands over eyes, visibly distraught.
But as he and his teammates saw their people, pride overcame problems. Team and fans had put on a display of the kind of resilience that has become familiar to the world in recent months.
"We did everything we could. I want to say sorry that we didn’t score but this is sport," Ukraine head coach Oleksandr Petrakov said postgame. "I do not have any criticism of any player in the team."
A welcome distraction from war
That national character was firmly on display in the hours before kickoff as, the chilly, grey streets of Cardiff dealt in cross-country hugs, handshakes and acceptance that whatever followed mattered only in relative terms.
But for 90 minutes or so, it seemed to be agreed, the haunting context could fade temporarily: "My wife’s brother is fighting in the war now and it’s so hard," Ukraine fan Vitali, who has lived in London for the last nine years, told DW just before the game. "At the moment, they can just maybe think about football for two hours and talk about the match, tell some stories. Then tomorrow it’s going to be different and we support our country in the war."
For players who had their league season cut short and only competed in benefit exhibition matches, the Ukraine national team certainly gave their compatriots a reason to hope. Their 3-1 win over Scotland was a welcome distraction and was an inspiring triumph the national team hoped to repeat on Sunday.
As the teams emerged, support for the visitors came from all around a stadium plonked in an out-of-town retail park, though those in red dished it out in polite applause rather than the booming acapella they reserved for their countrymen. Yellow and blue flags dominated one, bouncing, corner and hung in the Ukrainian dressing room, sent to the players from those on the front line.
Ukraine's World Cup dream ends
Solidarity from the stands was suspended after the emotionally charged anthems, though. A slip from Ruslan Malinovskyi bought an ironic jeer before Oleksander Zinchenko’s free kick, which hit the net before the referee was ready, bought reflexive boos. This was, after all, a World Cup playoff.
Ukraine seemed up to the occasion. Hennessey, the Wales keeper, was called in to action by Malinovskyi, Viktor Tsyganov and Roman Yaremchuk in the first 12 minutes, while Gareth Bale’s left foot dragged him towards any hint of space between Ukrainian lines.
It turned out it was time, more than space, he needed. His 34th minute free kick was curled wickedly between the Ukrainian defense and their keeper and the Ukrainian captain could only dive desperately to divert into his own net.
Yarmelenko, once a player who strolled, chest out, across the pitch had begun to hold himself heavily, even before Saturday. It’s no surprise, given the weight he must bear. If the cruelty of the moment stung the team in blue, they did their best not to show it. Yarmolenko was soon down the other end claiming a penalty that, at first, looked fanciful but is often given by the VAR, before a corner had Hennessey scrambling.
The Wales keeper was at it again, shortly after the break when he kept out Tsyganov in front of the Ukrainian fans, before Yaremchuk steered the rebound wide. "Uk-ra-ine" came the cry in response, as the home fans’ nerves began to jangle.
As the minutes on the stadium clock ticked up, so the tension rose: Ukraine probed patiently while Wales looked to counter through Neco Williams, Daniel James and substitute Brennan Johnson, who struck the post shortly after coming on. Bale perhaps should have eased it when a ball fell to him at the back post, but his shot lacked precision and the tension still hung in the air.
Yarmolenko’s chance to make amends came and went when he failed to convert a loose ball from 10 yards out and though the chants kept coming, the goal just would not.
It was tough, it wasn't fair and Wales, not Ukraine, will be going to the World Cup — Wales' first World Cup qualification since 1958. This mattered to everyone in Cardiff, but everyone here knows more important matters will soon return to focus.