Gareth Bale did it again and Wales are now on the brink of making history. Victory here in Nicosia courtesy of his bullet header in the 82nd minute means Chris Coleman’s side can clinch their ticket to the European Championship in France next year with a win over Israel in Cardiff on Sunday.
Bale saw a trademark free-kick saved on the line in the first half, created a ‘goal’ with a cross for Dave Edwards that was disallowed and set up another early chance for Aaron Ramsey, but it looked as though the game might end in a draw after the Cypriots eventually came to the party and forced Wales on to the back foot.
But cometh the hour, cometh Bale. He met Jazz Richards’ cross on the edge of the six-yard box and fired the ball past Antonis Georgallides in the home goal. It was Bale’s sixth goal in seven qualifying matches and his 12th in his last 15 games for Wales.
With Belgium beating Bosnia 3-1, a win over Israel will mean the end to 57 years of waiting for Welsh fans for a trip to the finals of a major championship.
There were nerves right from the off as the Wales captain, Ashley Williams, conceded the first foul and was then forced to kick out wildly to clear the ball five yards from his goal to concede the first corner.
Coleman had done his best as manager to play down the expectations beforehand, even though his side were facing a much changed Cyprus team from the one beaten 2-1 in Cardiff earlier in the campaign – they were missing four key players through injury and suspension.
It was just as well because the Cypriots passed the ball well, did their best to supply the dangerous Nestoras Mitidis up front and enjoyed more than 60 per cent possession in the first half. Even so, Wayne Hennessey never came under any real threat in the Welsh goal on the night he won his 50th cap.
At the other end, Wales created some clear-cut chances and actually got the ball into the net from the head of Edwards in the 26th minute. Some wonderful trickery down the right from Bale ended with a pinpoint cross met by Edwards in the six-yard box with a perfect header.
As the Wolves player, who had come into the side when Joe Ledley pulled out with injury, turned to celebrate the Polish referee, Szymon Marciniak, spotted Hal Robson-Kanu clattering into a central defender in front of Edwards and awarded a free-kick.
Earlier, Ramsey had fired a curling shot just over the bar and Neil Taylor had a shot from point-blank range beaten away by Georgallides, after he had kept out a long-range Bale free-kick with his knees. The half ended with Robson-Kanu breaking clear down the right and giving Ramsey another chance, but the Arsenal man’s touch let him down and the frustration continued.
No doubt news of Belgium’s fightback at home to Bosnia to lead 2-1 at the break in their game will have filtered through to the Welsh dressing room at half-time, but all Coleman would have needed to say to his side was to keep their shape, keep their belief and be more clinical with their chances.
Cyprus started brightly in the second half and Hennessey was called on to make his first meaningful save within a minute of the restart, beating away a dipping shot from outside the area and then plucking the ball from under his bar from the resulting corner.
Wales were second best in the tackle for the opening 10 minutes of the second half and got nothing out of the Polish referee when Robson-Kanu was set free running into the Cypriot area, pushed the ball past the goalkeeper and then went to ground.
The marking on Bale was much tighter than in the first half and the Welsh wizard found himself dispossessed more often as Cyprus picked up the pace and grew in confidence. Giorgos Economides fired a left-footed shot inches over the bar from 20 yards out as the pressure mounted on the group leaders.
Both managers changed their front-runners just after the hour mark had past, Georgios Kolokoudias replacing Mitidis for Cyprus and Sam Vokes taking over from Robson-Kanu for Wales, but there was little sign of the game’s first goal arriving at that stage, even when Bale broke down the left and gave Vokes his first chance to shine with a left-footed shot from his low cross.
Wales somehow summoned up extra energy in the exhausting heat in the final 15 minutes and created more and more chances. They kept on running and, indeed, kept the faith.
Their reward was that goal from Bale and another clean sheet, the fifth in seven games, despite some last minute effort from the Cypriots. To their credit, the home side never gave up, but they simply ran into a force of football, a player who has put his country on the verge of the biggest sporting party, and achievement, of the past six decades.
Man of the match Bale.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee S Marciniak (Poland).
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