This was a bail out. Chris Coleman has his first victory as manager of Wales – at the fifth attempt – and that he does is entirely down to one man. This was Gareth Bale against Scotland and Bale won; he won the penalty to score the equaliser with 10 minutes remaining and then with just two minutes left he arced a left foot shot over Allan McGregor that won the match.
Aaron Ramsey was supposed to be the home side's penalty taker but he had no doubt as to what his duty was. Nothing was going to stop Bale last night and Ramsey duly stepped aside.
For the winner again it was a simple tactic: give it to Gareth. Sunderland midfielder David Vaughan rolled a free-kick to his team-mate just outside the centre circle and Bale galloped forward yet again. The Scotland defence closed in but they were too late.
"Swashbuckling," was how Coleman branded Bale's performance. From start to the grandstand finish the Tottenham Hotspur man was the dominant figure of a damp night in Cardiff, and one that Scotland departed into nursing a sense of injustice at having been denied probable victory thanks to an apparent error by a linesman. With one point from three games, it shredded Scotland's already tattered hopes of qualifying – next up are buoyant Belgium on Tuesday – while for Wales it brings some welcome relief even if qualification is likely to also prove beyond them too. Next for them is a trip to Croatia on the same night.
Steven Fletcher, who produced a typically sharp performance on his return to international duty, had a goal that would have doubled Scotland's lead disallowed shortly before Bale's equaliser. There were questions too about the ease with which Bale tumbled to the ground under pressure from Shaun Maloney to win the penalty. Neither Craig Levein, whose future will now come under renewed speculation, nor his players – Maloney admitted afterwards he did make contact – made anything of Bale's collapse and Coleman defended his player, suggesting the speed at which Bale was travelling across a slippery surface meant the slightest contact would be enough to upset him.
Fletcher's goal that wasn't did anger Levein. The linesman raised his flag, believing Charlie Adam's swirling cross had swung out of play before Fletcher nudged it over the line with his head. Replays suggested the ball had, in fact, stayed in play.
"With 10 minutes to go I couldn't see us losing the match," said Levein, whose side performed only in patches in what was a frenetic, very British encounter.
"But leads can be fragile as it proved tonight. It was a serious error with the chalked off goal that Fletcher scored. It is a huge error and it is very difficult to take. It makes me angry."
Scotland did have their chances to kill off the home side. They were gifted their goal, James Morrison running on to Steven Fletcher's flick on from McGregor's goal-kick and sliding the ball confidently home midway through the opening half.
As a former centre-half Coleman must have winced at the ease with which his defence was opened up. Morrison had two other chances to extend the lead either side of half-time, once shooting over and then seeing Lewis Price parry his drive from close range.
The rest was pretty much the Bale tale. "There is no full-back in the world who could have lived with him tonight," said Coleman. "He keeps on producing swashbuckling performances, doing things other players can't do. He is a special player and he has not even peaked yet. He was a different class. His energy – he was an absolute machine."
Levein's plan had been to follow Belgium's lead when the Group A favourites won here in the first round of game and starve Bale of the ball. "In the first half we coped reasonably well with him," said Levein.
"We stopped him getting the ball. The longer the game went at 1-0 he started to wander and then it became more difficult for us. He's a fantastic player, he did cause problems for us."
It was Bale who launched the first meaningful attack of the night. Getting behind Danny Fox and curling a low shot narrowly beyond the far post. It was a chastening night for Fox, as trying as any he can have experienced in a Southampton defence that has been overworked this season. The tone of the night was set. Bale got the ball, with or without Fox's attentions it did not seem to matter, but there was no Wales player able to take advantage of the supply line.
The most glaring moment came seconds before Scotland took the lead. Bale dashed past Fox and made it impossible for Steve Morison not to score with an inch-perfect cross. The Norwich striker achieved the impossible and headed wide. Seconds later Wales were behind and all the home side's momentum disappeared.
It was Bale who lifted them again in the second half. The sight of the gold No 11 on the back of his Welsh shirt became a wearingly familiar one to Fox and Maloney, who dropped back to try and help out his team-mate.
Bale did grow frustrated as no one in red took up the tune of his one-man band. He was booked following an angry exchange with the referee after complaining one run had been illegally ended. But back he came, again and again and finally he got his reward. Coleman claimed it was a just outcome for his side. That is debatable but what brooks no argument is that Bale deserved only to be on the winning side.
Man of match Bale.
Match rating 8/10.
Referee F Meyer (Germany).
Attendance 23,249.Reuse content