Wales vs Belgium match report: Gareth Bale rises to occasion on landmark night to put Wales in box seat

Wales 1 Belgium 0: Real Madrid forward puts Welsh on the verge of Euro 2016 qualification with goal-scoring 50th cap

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The Independent Football

Gareth Bale marked his 50th cap in the perfect manner as his brilliant winner sank Belgium, ranked No 2 in the world, and guided Wales ever closer to a place at  Euro 2016.

The Real Madrid forward may have had a difficult second season in the Spanish capital, but he has always been adored by his fellow countrymen. That adulation will only grow after he settled this encounter to move Wales three points clear at the top of Group B, with four games to play.

The 25-year-old took advantage of an awful defensive header from Radja Nainggolan, controlling the ball on his chest before slotting it past Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to give Wales a lead they clung on to grimly under heavy second-half pressure.

Some great Welsh players have missed out on tournament football since their last appearance at a finals in 1958, Ryan Giggs, Gary Speed, Ian Rush and Mark Hughes among them.

But Bale and company now have a huge opportunity to succeed where so many failed with a handy advantage over their challengers for a top two finish. This win also guarantees they will be in the top pot of seeds when the World Cup qualifying draw is made in Russia next month. Last time round they were in the bottom pot. 

Bale battles with Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne

Manager Chris Coleman has not been afraid to tinker during this campaign, and once again he sprung something of surprise by opting to bring in Jazz Richards on the right-hand side of a five-man defence, with the excellent Chris Gunter at centre-half.

It was only the second start of Richards’ international career and it highlighted the Wales camp’s awareness of the threat posed by Eden Hazard down the Belgian left.

Wales had drawn their previous two games against the Belgians, but nerves were clear to see, with a misdirected defensive header from Gunter and a slip from Neil Taylor.

Hazard needed no second opportunity in making a beeline for Richards and his trickery set up the first-half opening for Nainggolan, who drilled over the bar.

The Chelsea man took on the shooting duties himself moments later, exchanging passes with Kevin De Bruyne before flashing a volley over when Aaron Ramsey failed to clear a cross.

It took Wales 21 minutes to have a genuine foray into the Belgium box. Bale slipped Aaron Ramsey in down the left channel but Taylor’s cross was easily claimed by Courtois.

The next attacking foray from the Dragons nearly took the roof off Cardiff City Stadium. Belgium were struggling to deal with a Ramsey free-kick on the left when Nainggolan riskily tried to head the ball back to Courtois from the edge of his own box. Bale, who else, was waiting. In one movement he controlled the ball expertly before beating the advancing keeper.

It was Bale’s fifth goal of the campaign and moved him sixth on the all-time list of Wales scorers with 17, above Hughes, Robert Earnshaw and Cliff Jones.

Wales were in dreamland and they could so easily have doubled their lead in the 32nd minute. Hal Robson-Kanu played in Ramsey and when Courtois pushed out the Arsenal midfielder’s cross it went straight to the Reading forward.

But he could not show the same composure as Bale, sending the ball wide of the right-hand post and sinking to his knees in despair.

Belgium rallied, enjoying plentiful possession and looking to stand-in skipper Hazard to unlock the Welsh defence. They held out to the break, although had Axel Witsel and Christian Benteke not got in each other’s way going for a header the visitors could easily have been level.

Belgium manager Marc Wilmots had seen enough and removed the ineffectual Dries Mertens to bring on Everton’s Romelu Lukaku, but his side created and wasted two gilt-edged chances within five minutes of the restart.

Benteke did brilliantly to escape the attentions of Ashley Williams but could not keep his shot down, before De Bruyne fired a low shot inches wide as a motionless Wayne Hennessey watched on.

Wales dropped deeper and deeper as the pressure increased and chances kept coming the way of the visitors. Richards flicked a goal-bound Hazard header on to the roof of his net before Williams made a crucial block as the same player fired an angled drive across goal.

Wales began to tire during the final quarter as Belgium pressed forward relentlessly, but they held out for a  victory that will live long in the memory.