How to solve a problem like missing Gareth Bale was answered in an unexpected manner on a night that drastically brightened Welsh hopes for reaching the World Cup in Russia.
Tom Lawrence produced a coming-of-age display for Wales to earn a vital three points that brings into the realms of realism a place in next month’s play-offs.
Rather than Aaron Ramsey, it was Lawrence who stepped into the Bale-shaped hole, scoring a scorching winner and bringing plenty bravado besides in what can be regarded a momentous match for Wales.
Tom Lawrence salutes the travelling support after scoring his first international goal
Lawrence fires home a stunning low drive to put Wales 1-0 up four minutes into second half
Georgia (4-3-2-1): Loria 6; Kakabadze 6, Kverkvelia 6, Kashia 6, Navalovski 6; Merebashvili 6.5, Kvekveskiri 6 (Jigauri 76), Kazaishvili 6.5; Kankava 6, Gvilia 6.5 (Khocholava 89), Kvilitaia 6 (Skhirtladze 76)
Manager: Vladimir Weiss 6
Wales (4-2-3-1): Hennessey 7; Gunter 7, Chester 7, Williams 7, Davies 7.5; King 7, Allen 8, Ledley 7.5 (Edwards 81); Lawrence 8.5 (Woodburn 90), Ramsey 7.5; Vokes 7.5 (Robson-Kanu 74 6)
Manager: Chris Coleman 8
Goalscorer: Lawrence 49
Booking: Lawrence 55
Referee: Jesus Gil Manzano 8
Chris Coleman said his team could win without Bale and though there were a few hairy minutes they deservedly did so for the first time since October 2013. This was also their first competitive away win minus Bale since against Azerbaijan in 2009, although in fairness the Real Madrid forward rarely misses the international call.
All eyes now turn to Monday’s visit of Republic of Ireland to Cardiff in what promises to be a grandstand occasion. Another win would almost certainly grant Wales a place in the play-offs, while a draw might also be enough depending on results from elsewhere in Europe, given only the top eight runners-up are handed spots. Ireland have their own ambitions of course.
Coleman was relieved all seven of his players one booking away from a ban left the Boris Paichadze Arena unscathed and there is real momentum about his team now.
Joe Ledley fells Giorgi Merebashvili as Aaron Ramsey (right) watches on during the first half
Chris Coleman was unable to call upon talisman Gareth Bale for the World Cup qualifier
Joe Allen advances in possession as Valerian Gvilia keeps tabs on the Wales midfielder
Georgia goalkeeper Giorgi Loria comes out to punch clear ahead of the advancing Ramsey
Wales captain Ashley Williams barks out instructions to his team as Ben Davies watches on
This was a third win in succession without conceding and one of personal satisfaction for Coleman, who played in a 5-0 defeat to Georgia in Tbilisi in 1994.
In the absence of his best player, Coleman had elected for experience, reinstating Joe Ledley to the starting line-up rather than thrusting in Ben Woodburn.
The plan worked early and they should really have gone ahead after three minutes. Lawrence, starting his third Wales game in succession, burst through Georgia’s midfield and weighted a perfect pass to Ramsey. The Arsenal midfielder snatched slightly at his left-foot shot and dragged the ball just wide.
Another superb chance arrived in the 17th minute when Joe Allen scooped a delightful ball into the path of Andy King, whose shot into the turf bounced up and needed a fine save from goalkeeper Giorgi Loria.
Sam Vokes reacts after missing a golden opportunity to open the scoring against Georgia
Wayne Hennessey is forced to make a diving save to prevent the home side from going 1-0 up
Ramsey attempts to spark an attack for Wales during a drab first half at the Dinamo Arena
James Chester passes forward during a first half where Georgia dominated possession
REMAINING GROUP D FIXTURES
Moldova vs Austria
Serbia vs Georgia
Wales vs Republic of Ireland
Wales went close again on the half hour when Sam Vokes connected well to Ramsey’s cross but sent the ball spinning the wrong side of the far post.
Georgia were more than passengers in the contest, though. Giorgi Kakabadze whipped a devilish cross to Giorgi Kvilitaia and the forward’s glancing header bounced just wide to the relief of a scrambling Wayne Hennessey.
But it felt like the breakthrough would come for Wales and it did in wonderful style. Four minutes after the restart Ramsey fed Lawrence in a pocket of space 25 yards out and he turned, sized up the situation, and drove a rocket of a shot into the far corner. Loria got a hand to it but the power was too great.
Celebrating his first international goal, Lawrence leapt into the air in front of 2,000 Wales supporters who had made this difficult journey to the corner of Europe.
Vokes vies for the ball with Jaba Kankava as Wales struggled to make the breakthrough
Hennessey (left) comes through a crowd of bodies to punch clear a Georgia free-kick
Wales players toast Lawrence’s opener in Friday’s crucial World Cup qualifying clash
Ramsey congratulates Lawrence after the Derby midfielder put Wales in front in Tbilisi
Full of confidence, the Derby County winger tried again in the 53rd minute, skipping past a Georgia defender but this time curling his shot wide. Ramsey could have made victory certain with 20 minutes to go when put through by Lawrence but he failed to put enough direction or power on his effort.
For all Wales comfort the lead remained slender and with 11 minutes to go Georgia almost made them pay. Giorgi Navalovski was on the end of a good move, checking back and firing a shot that Hennessey saved at the second attempt. There was further alarm when Otar Kakabadze ran clear in added time but he strangely elected to cross rather than shoot and Wales were let off. That much was deserved and now they will look to finish the job at home.
Coleman said: ‘I’m absolutely thrilled for Tom. He showed courage, intelligence, and great maturity. The goal was sensational.’
Lawrence said: ‘I don’t think you can describe that feeling, it’s what you dream of.’
Ramsey is denied from close range by Loria as Wales went in search of a second goal
Merebashvili turns on the ball as Georgia pushed for a late leveller at the Dinamo Arena
Wales’ travelling supporters are jubilant after they secured a crucial World Cup qualifying win