Cardiff (United Kingdom) (AFP) – A brilliant double from Gareth Bale took Wales to the brink of a first World Cup since 1958 thanks to a 2-1 win over Austria in Cardiff on Thursday.
Robert Page’s men will face Scotland or Ukraine for a place in Qatar later this year after Bale rolled back the years to again produce his best form for his country.
Bale’s stunning free-kick and strike into the top corner either side of half-time gave the home side a two-goal advantage.
A Ben Davies own goal halved Austria’s arrears, but Wales saw out a tense final quarter to move one match away from ending the 64-year wait to reach the biggest stage in football.
Bale has been nearly a non-existent figure during the final year of his contract at Real Madrid.
The 32-year-old has played just 77 minutes at club level since the last international break in November and irked his critics in the Spanish capital by declaring himself unfit for Madrid’s 4-0 defeat to Barcelona last weekend.
There was never any doubt about Bale making himself available for possibly his last shot at leading his country to a World Cup.
Once again the four-time Champions League winner stood up to produce the moments of quality his nation needed.
Wales were lucky just to be on level terms by the time Bale took aim to open the scoring midway through the first half.
Austria finished fourth in a disappointing qualifying campaign, but made it into the playoffs courtesy of their Nations League performance.
The visitors had a glorious early chance to quieten the raucous Cardiff crowd when Christoph Baumgartner was played through on goal, but Neco Williams got back to deflect his effort onto the crossbar.
A lack of club football for both Bale and Wales’ other star name Aaron Ramsey looked to be taking its toll in the opening quarter as they struggled to gain a foothold in the game.
But one swipe of Bale’s wand of a left foot transformed the game and set the home side on course for a famous night.
Harry Wilson was cynically hauled down on the edge of the area by Baumgartner.
Bale had not scored a free-kick at international level since doing so twice at Euro 2016, but produced the perfect time to find his range with a stunning dipping effort that clipped the underside of the bar on its way past Heinz Lindner.
Ramsey would have added a second before the break had it not been for a brilliant save by Lindner to turn the Rangers midfielder’s shot behind at his near post from Wilson’s well-weighted pass.
Austria again started the better in the second half with Marko Arnautovic heading a good opening straight at Wayne Hennessey.
However, they were again undone by a moment of Bale magic as he collected a loose ball from a corner and arrowed a shot high into the far corner for his 38th international goal in his 101st cap.
Bale skewed wide with the chance to seal a memorable hat-trick in one of a number of Welsh chances to kill the game off on the counter-attack.
But they were made to suffer a nervy finale when Bayern Munich’s Marcel Sabitzer’s shot from outside the box deflected in off Davies 26 minutes from time.
Bale limped off to a standing ovation in stoppage time.
But there was no sting in the tale as Wales saw out the final stages without their captain to take another step towards Qatar.
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