Wales are one game away from qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 1958, having beaten Austria 2-1 to triumph in their play-off semi-final at the Cardiff City Stadium.
A deafening rendition of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau set the tone for the evening, with the stands crackling with anticipation at kick off. Both sides seemed to feed off the atmosphere, with a frantic, end-to-end start punctuated by a smart through-ball from Marcel Sabitzer which saw Christoph Baumgartner steal in behind and rattle the post.
Wales came right back at their opponents, with Connor Roberts and Neco Williams creating a succession of chances from the wing-back positions. The hosts won a menacing free kick when Harry Wilson drove towards the box and was body checked by Baumgartner, with Gareth Bale stepping up to take it.
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In a moment which encapsulated Bale’s talismanic influence for his national side, he lifted the ball over the wall and sent it dipping into the top corner with impossible ease. Austria goalkeeper Heinz Lindner could only watch as it dropped into the back of the net, sending the home crowd into raptures.
Wales adopted a counter-attacking stance for the rest of the first half and, despite ceding the majority of possession to Austria, looked far likelier to score. Only a fingertip save from Lindner at full stretch stopped Aaron Ramsey from extending their lead, with the ball rippling the outside of the net instead of whistling in at the near post.
The game looked to be over and done with when, five minutes after the restart, Wilson won the ball high up the pitch and moved it on to Dan James, who won a corner. The pair played a short one-two before James whipped an inswinging cross into the box and, via a steadying touch from Ben Davies, found Bale.
Despite the fact he was moving away from goal, he somehow managed to turn on his heel and leather into the far corner. Once again, Cardiff shook with the force of a man-made earthquake.
Wales got a scare when, a little over 20 minutes later, Davies scored an unfortunate own goal while attempting to block a shot from Sabitzer. The ball ricocheted off his boot and bounced over Hennessey, giving the visitors hope.
Wales’ back line held strong, however, with Joe Rodon particularly impressive at the heart of defence. The final whistle was met with an outpouring of emotion in the stands, with Wales now set to face either Scotland or Ukraine for a place at Qatar 2022.
Long wait ahead for Wales. With the other play-off semi-final for qualification Path A postponed until June on account of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Wales will have to bide their time for several months at least before finding out which side they will play in the final.
If Russia’s war on its neighbour continues until the summer, the Ukrainians may not be able to fulfil their fixtures then either. That could feasibly see their meeting with Scotland pushed back until September, leaving a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the qualification process.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Gareth Bale (Wales). Having produced moments of magic time and again in a Wales shirt, this was one of Bale’s finest outings for his country.
Not only were both of his goals absolutely mesmerising, his distribution, movement and vision with the ball at his feet were the cornerstones of Wales’ attacking play. Subbed off with a couple of minutes to go, he was deservedly met with a standing ovation.
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Wales: Hennessey 7, Ampadu 7, Rodon 8, B Davies 6, Roberts 7, Wilson 8, Allen 7, Ramsey 8, N Williams 7, James 5, Bale 9
Subs: Johnson 6, Mepham N/A
Austria: Lindner 7, Seiwald 7, Hinteregger 5, Dragovic 6, Alaba 6, Schlager 5, Laimer 5, Lainer 6, Baumgartner 6, Sabitzer 6, Arnautovic 5
Subs: Kalajdzic 5, Wiemann 5, Lazaro 5, Gregoritsch N/A
4’ AUSTRIA HIT THE POST! The Welsh defence get in a muddle and Sabitzer plays through Baumgartner. With only Hennessey to beat, his attempted finish rattles the upright.
25’ GOAL! That is an absolute screamer. Bale lifts the free kick over the wall and sends it dipping into the top corner, leaving Lindner with no chance.
39’ SO CLOSE! Austria lose possession in midfield and Wilson sprays a pass to Ramsey out wide on the right. He roars forwards and lashes a shot on target from a narrowing angle, forcing Lindner into a fingertip save which pushes it round the post.
51’ GOAL! Wilson presses high up the pitch and wins the ball, moving it on to James. He earns a corner for Wales, taking it himself. He combines with Wilson once more, playing a short-one two before whipping an inswinging cross into the area. Davies touches it to the feet of Bale, who turns and hammers a shot into the far corner.
65’ OWN GOAL! It’s a horrible moment for Davies, who sticks out a foot in an attempt to block a shot from Sabitzer and accidentally sends the ball looping over Hennessey and into the back of the net.
- Wales are now unbeaten in 17 games on home soil, a run stretching back to a 2-1 defeat against Denmark in November 2018. (They will host the play-off final in Cardiff.)
- As per Opta, Bale has now scored seven goals for Wales from direct free kicks. He first scored a free kick for his national side 15 years and 168 days ago, on his debut against Slovakia in October 2006.
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