By Phil Blanche, PA, Split
Nathan Broadhead struck a stoppage-time equaliser on his debut as Wales began the post-Gareth Bale era with a 1-1 draw against Croatia.
Andrej Kramaric’s first-half strike looked as if it would be enough to give group favourites Croatia a winning start to Euro 2024 qualifying in Split.
But Wales levelled in the most dramatic fashion in the third and final minute of stoppage time when Croatia struggled to clear Connor Roberts’ long throw and substitute Broadhead squeezed home at the far post.
The draw stretched Wales’ winless run to nine games since beating Ukraine in June to reach the World Cup, but it will feel like a victory to Rob Page’s side after they had been forced to soak up pressure for long periods at the Stadion Poljud.
Broadhead’s effort was Wales’ first attempt on target, placing the lack of goal threat into sharp focus after the loss of talismanic captain Bale following the World Cup.
Bale called time on his trophy-laden career after scoring 41 goals and winning 111 caps for Wales – both national-team records – while fellow Euro 2016 heroes Chris Gunter, Joe Allen and Jonny Williams also ended their international careers.
Aaron Ramsey resumed the role of captain 11 years after the armband had been taken away from him.
There had been much talk of a new era for Welsh football but, in the event, every member of Page’s starting line-up had played at the World Cup. Six uncapped players were on the bench.
With Armenia, Latvia and Turkey lying in wait in Group D, Wales’ first task was by far the toughest examination.
Croatia finished third in Qatar, had never lost a European Championship qualifier on home soil – a total of 35 matches – and Real Madrid’s Luka Modric was still pulling the strings in midfield and testing Danny Ward after only three minutes.
That opportunity set the tone of a first half that Croatia dominated from start to finish, with Ward coming to the rescue again to push out Kramaric’s well-struck effort.
Marcelo Brozovic skied over before Ivan Perisic thought he had provided the lead with a deflected strike only for Portuguese referee Joao Pinheiro to spot a push on a Welsh defender.
Sadly for Wales, their reprieve lasted a matter of moments as Croatia took a 28th-minute lead.
Weak defending from Joe Rodon and Neco Williams afforded space for Kramaric to find the bottom of Ward’s net from 20 yards.
It might have got worse for Wales but Modric and Kramaric were wayward and Ward clung on to Borna Sosa’s shot.
Wales offered nothing in attack until two minutes before the interval when Josko Gvardiol needlessly went into the back of Harry Wilson.
It was an inviting position for Wilson, 20 yards out and central to the goal, but his attempt just cleared the crossbar.
Mateo Kovacic blazed over just after the restart but Wales were much improved and fashioned their first clear opening after an hour.
Wilson located Daniel James unmarked at the far post but the winger snatched at his volley and failed to find the target.
James, Ramsey and Wilson exited in a triple substitution four minutes later as Page’s thoughts seemingly turned to Tuesday’s must-win home game against Latvia.
The switch appeared to rob Wales of any momentum they were building and Perisic struck the crossbar eight minutes from time.
But Wales were not done and Ipswich striker Broadhead was the hero as he timed his run to the far post to perfection.