Bale fires Wales to vital victory

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Published: Friday 12th June 2015 by The News Editor

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Wales took a massive step towards ending their 58-year wait for a major tournament appearance by beating Belgium 1-0 for one of the greatest victories in their history.

Gareth Bale’s 17th goal for his country on the occasion of his 50th cap settled an incredible Euro 2016 qualifying contest played out before a sell-out 33,000-plus crowd at Cardiff City Stadium.

Belgium came into the game top of Group B, ranked second in the world and having lost only one of their last 17 matches – last summer’s World Cup quarter-final against Argentina.

But Eden Hazard and company could not find a way through an organised home defence, even if they often laid a siege on the Welsh goal after Bale’s 25th-minute strike.

Wales – who have not qualified for a major tournament since the 1958 World Cup – now have a three-point lead at the top of Group B with four games left to play, and two more wins would almost certainly guarantee their presence at the European Championships in France next summer.

The victory also means Wales will take their place among the top seeds for next month’s World Cup draw in Russia, a pretty fine achievement considering they were ranked 112th in the world only three years ago.

Belgium took to the field as news emerged that coach Marc Wilmots had been overlooked for the Schalke job he had been strongly tipped to take following this showdown between the top two teams in the group.

But the Red Devils were quick into their stride and Christian Benteke was inches away from converting Dries Mertens’ cross.

Wales were struggling to get hold of the ball but Bale was desperate to impress and giving Belgium plenty to ponder on the counter-attack.

But Neil Taylor’s mistake allowed Mertens to set up Radja Nainggolan for a 20-yard shot which would have arrowed into the bottom corner of the net but for Wayne Hennessey’s strong hand.

Hazard was at his inventive best and fired a snapshot over the bar but Wales were gifted a goal against the run of play.

Belgium failed to clear a corner and Nainggolan headed the ball back into Bale’s path, the Real Madrid player coolly chesting the ball down and slipping his shot past Thibaut Curtois in the visitors’ goal.

It was Bale’s fifth goal of the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign and only the second Belgium had conceded in the competition.

Wales should have doubled their lead close to the break when Courtois failed to hold Aaron Ramsey’s shot and Toby Alderweireld’s poor clearance fell at the feet of Hal Robson-Kanu.

The Reading forward chose to take the chance first time but he sent the opportunity wide of Courtois’ gaping goal.

Belgium chose to go more direct after the break as Romelu Lukaku replaced Mertens and formed a physical front-two pairing with Benteke.

Hazard’s corner almost found Benteke at the far post but the inspirational Ashley Williams just did enough to protect his goal before Nainggolan and Kevin De Bruyne whistled efforts just wide of Hennessey’s goal.

Robson-Kanu sent Jazz Richards’ cross wide but it was an increasingly backs-to-the-wall exercise as Alderweireld fired wide and Hazard surged through before being denied at the death.

Nicolas Lombaerts collected a booking for cynically felling Bale, the second caution of the match after Joe Allen had picked up a booking to rule him out of the next qualifier in Cyprus at the start of September.

Belgium’s frustration was growing, Benteke kicking out at Ramsey and Jan Vertonghen showing his dismay at De Bruyne’s wayward pass, and Wilmots sent on an extra attacker for the final 20 minutes in the shape of Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco.

Chris Gunter denied the lurking Lukaku from under his own crossbar and Hennessey held Ferreira-Carrasco’s cross as the Welsh wall held.

The limping Bale was forced to leave the action with three minutes remaining but he had proved the hero for his country again and, amid wild scenes, he celebrated with his team-mates at the final whistle.

Published: Friday 12th June 2015 by The News Editor

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