Gareth Bale Masterclass Leads Wales To World Cup Play-Off Final

A free kick that will live forever, and a second goal that might have been even better, send Wales within one game of the World Cup
21:42, 24 Mar 2022

Gareth Bale staked his claim as Wales’ greatest-ever international footballer tonight, scoring two crucial and spectacular goals to send his country into the final of the World Cup qualifying play-off. Austria responded to his brace midway through the second half, but Wales battled on to a 2-1 victory in Cardiff.

Leeds United’s Daniel James tested Austria stopper Heinz Lindner early, curling in a shot that was easily caught. Instead, it was the away side who had the first big chance of the tie. A well-timed through-ball from Marcel Sabitzer set up Christoph Baumgartner. The Hoffenheim man hit the corner of the bar with an effort that stood up Wayne Hennessey. Neco Williams’ tackle appeared to guide the ball’s flight onto the woodwork, a world class defensive intervention at a vital moment.

Austria took advantage of Wales’ high defensive line once again when David Alaba threaded in a simply inspired pass for Marko Arnautovic. The former West Ham forward was flagged offside, but it was another warning for the Welsh.

Baumgartner was penalised for something resembling a WWE clothesline on Harry Wilson, and the anticipatory intake of breath within the Cardiff City Stadium was palpable. The infringement happened in what shall henceforth be known as “Gareth Bale Range”, and the Real Madrid winger proved exactly why expectations were high. Bale curled in a left-footed beauty of a free kick, kissing the crossbar as it landed inside the Austria net. This free kick will be shown in Welsh schools for the rest of time, and if Wales do go on to qualify for the World Cup, it will become as much a part of history lessons as physical education sessions.

The goal inspired Wales into further action, as they pressed to double their lead. The finest moment came when some wonderful interplay between James, Wilson and Aaron Ramsey ended with the latter drawing a brilliant save.

Austria started the second half fast, with Arnatuovic heading straight at Hennessey from a great position. It was a let-off for Rob Page’s side after they emerged cold for the second-half. It did have the desired effect though, as Wilson and James then conspired to produce a dangerous break.

As if Gareth Bale had not illuminated Cardiff enough for one night, he then seized upon a Ben Davies touch in the box. Taking the ball effortlessly in his stride, Bale turned and poked a superb finish home to send 30,000 of his closest friends into raptures. Big games require big players, and once again Bale was at the forefront of another huge occasion for his country.

There was an attempt from Bale to seal his hat-trick. Picking the ball up in the right channel, the ex-Spurs man showed there is still fuel in those after-burners as he beat his marker. The shot was uncharacteristically wayward, but one could forgive the player this indulgence.

Just when Welsh fans were starting to dream, Austria proved they were still very much alive in this tie. A Sabitzer shot from outside the box did not have a great deal on it, but Ben Davies’ outstretched leg sent it looping over a helpless Hennessey. It was a cruel way to concede, and complete concentration would be needed for the remaining 25 minutes.

The energetic James, who had not stopped running all night long, went up the other end and forced another save from Lindner. Joe Allen played Ramsey in, and the ex-Arsenal midfielder found James brilliantly. The finish could have been better, but full credit to the Basel goalkeeper for his save.

Wales largely retreated into a rearguard action as the time ticked away. Joe Rodon pulled off a spectacular late block. Chris Mepham was brought on both to allow Bale a well-deserved and booming ovation, and to strengthen the back-line further. Finally, after some agonising moments, it was enough. Wales will meet either Scotland or Ukraine and, should they win, they will reach a first World Cup since 1958. With Gareth Bale in their ranks, you would not bet against them.

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