With Gareth Bale spearheading the charge, there is a tangible sense of optimism that Wales will finally put more than half a century of hurt behind them and qualify for next year’s European Championships.
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Friday’s 1-0 defeat of Belgium, the talismanic Bale (who else) netting the only goal at a vociferous Cardiff City Stadium, has put the Dragons in the driving seat for Euro 2016.
The top two in each qualifying group are guaranteed passage to France, although Wales’ work is far from done. Chris Colemen’s men have four games left, at home to Israel and Andorra, as well as trips to Cyprus and Bosnia Herzegovina.
So impressed by Gareth Bale last night for #Wales. Rafa Benitez was in the crowd in Cardiff. I’m sure he’ll see the best of Bale next season
— John Bennett (@JohnBennettBBC) June 13, 2015
But with Bale putting his domestic woes with Real Madrid aside and driving his country onwards, the Dragons finally look set to consign the last 57 years of mediocrity and suffering to the flames.
If they can capitalise on an excellent result against the star-studded Belgians and finish the job, Wales will appear at a first major finals since the 1958 World Cup. And Bale, above anyone else, deserves to be paraded on one of international football’s grandest stages wearing the colours of his country, especially after what he has done during this qualifying campaign.
In six Group B qualifying games Bale has scored five times. He has a further two assists – directly influencing seven of Wales’ eight goals.
A major tournament is something Ryan Giggs, despite his undeniable talent, could never inspire Wales to. Something his glittering career will forever be bereft of. Something Bale is on the brink of.
He has, of course, already dazzled in some of football’s finest arenas; the hat-trick for Tottenham against Internazionale at the San Siro, the stunning goal at the Mestalla to win the 2014 Copa del Rey for Real, and the winner in the Champions League final to claim La Decima for Los Blancos.
Before Bale, Giggs was always considered Wales’ finest product. But the Manchester United legend never truly performed for his country. Forget all the huff that Giggs should have played more games, that Sir Alex Ferguson exerted significant control over Giggs’ availability for his country. He still won 64 caps, but never dominated for Wales like he did at United.
— Goals Soccer Centres (@goals_soccer) June 13, 2015
Bale does so for both club and country. He is undoubtedly the star, yet at the same time he is unquestionably a team player. While Cristiano Ronaldo adores being in the limelight at Madrid, Bale is only interested in Wales’ success. You could see that by the way he celebrated on the pitch after the Belgium game.
He said after it: “I think everybody knows how much I want to get to a major tournament with Wales. It’s top of my list now. It’s on, so we’ll keep working hard to do it.”
It is indeed on. And if Wales’ star continues to rise, from the number 22 in the FIFA world rankings they currently occupy, success for them and Bale will go hand in hand.
He won his 50th cap on Friday and, aged just 25, it’s easy to picture him becoming Wales’ record appearance maker. He is 42 shy of Neville Southall’s benchmark (92) and could feasibly become the first Welshman to break 100 caps.
His 17th goal for Wales also leaves him just 11 shy of Ian Rush’s record of 28.
Should he go on to top both, in addition to leading Wales to France next year, he will well and truly have eclipsed Giggs as the greatest ever Welsh player.
Portugal moved five points clear at the top of European Championship qualifying Group I on Saturday after Cristiano Ronaldo’s third successive hat-trick secured a crucial 3-2 win in Armenia.
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The Portuguese, who played the last 30 minutes down to 10 men, were given a real scare by an Armenian side who had picked up just a single point in their first four group games.
The hosts were under new management after former Swiss coach Bernard Challandes stood down following their last match — a 2-1 qualifying defeat against Albania.
Record caps holder (131 appearances) Sargis Hovsepyan is now in the hotseat and his influence appeared to have the desired effect as Armenia took a 14th-minute lead through Brazilian-born midfielder Marcos Pizzelli.
But Fernando Santos’ Portugal levelled just before the half-hour mark via a predictable source, with World Player of the Year Ronaldo converting a penalty.
The Real Madrid superstar turned the game on its head in the 55th minute. He got his double to put the 2012 semi-finalists in front for the first time and just three minutes later, the 30-year-old sealed his third hat-trick in as many games — after scoring two in succession for Real Madrid at the end of the domestic season — to put Portugal 3-1 in front.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s third goal today, to complete his hat-trick. Out of this world. https://t.co/BftglT7oUk
— Sportskeeda (@Sportskeeda) June 13, 2015
But after midfielder Tiago’s red card, the Portuguese had a numerical disadvantage, which allowed the hosts back into the match.
Hrayr Mkoyan struck to reduce the deficit after 72 minutes to give the Armenians hope, but Portugal held out fairly comfortably.
Another man to register a hat-trick was Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski who scored three in the space of four minutes late in the game as Poland beat Georgia 4-0.
Poland, who lead qualifying Group D, were in front in Warsaw thanks to a 62nd-minute strike by Arkadiusz Milik before captain Lewandowski doubled their lead in the 89th minute.
He then added another in the 92nd minute and completed a remarkable treble in the third minute of stoppage time to put the seal on a handsome win.
Robert Lewandowski hit a four-minute hat-trick for Poland. You can’t even boil an egg in that time… pic.twitter.com/wQw3FP0kQf
— JOE.co.uk (@JOE_co_uk) June 13, 2015
Elsewhere, Shaun Maloney was the Republic of Ireland’s nemesis once more as Scotland delivered a massive blow to their hosts’ Euro 2016 qualification hopes with a 1-1 draw at Lansdowne Road.
The Chicago Fire midfielder’s second-half strike took a massive deflection off Ireland skipper John O’Shea to cancel out Jon Walters’ first-half goal, and the result leaves Ireland five points behind Group D leaders Poland in fourth place.
Gareth Bale sent Wales striding towards a first major tournament appearance since 1958 as they summoned a nervy but vital victory over Belgium in Cardiff on Friday night.
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On a raucous, muggy night in the Welsh capital, Bale capitalised on an error by Radja Nainggolan in the 25th minute to mark his 50th cap with a goal that took Chris Coleman’s men three points clear of Belgium in Group B.
They are also, crucially, five points above third-place Israel with four games to play and with only the top two teams certain to qualify, their 57-year wait since the 1958 World Cup is tantalisingly close to ending.
By beating Belgium, currently second in the FIFA rankings, Wales are also thought to have played their way into the top pool of seeds for next month’s qualifying draw for the 2018 World Cup, giving their fans yet more reason to feel dizzy as they poured out into the Cardiff night.
Wales just beat the 2nd best team in the world. Which means there’s only one team better than Wales. In the world. pic.twitter.com/s1dozODeOc
— Ciaran Jenkins (@C4Ciaran) June 12, 2015
Croatia remain in charge of Euro 2016 qualifying Group H after holding Italy to a 1-1 draw behind closed doors in Split.
Mario Mandzukic was involved in the game’s three key incidents, the Atletico Madrid striker missing a penalty before scoring Croatia’s opener and swiftly conceding a spot-kick to Italy which Antonio Candreva converted.
Defender Darijo Srna was dismissed at the death but Italy could not take advantage and grab a stoppage-time winner, and they sit two points behind Croatia in the standings.
Fans were excluded from the Stadion Poljud as a result of racist chanting in Croatia’s meeting with Norway and further questions will be put to the Croatian Football Federation as a swastika had somehow been visibly carved into the playing surface prior to kick-off.
The Croatian Football Federation has apologised after a swastika was marked on the pitch for their qualifier vs Italy pic.twitter.com/jc6FVRB7H1
— TNC International (@TNC_Global) June 12, 2015
In Group A, Georginio Wijnaldum and Luciano Narsingh fired two goals in four second-half minutes to keep the Netherlands’ qualification hopes alive in a patchy 2-0 victory in Latvia.
The PSV Eindhoven team-mates transformed a tricky and frustrating night into something resembling a routine victory for Guus Hiddink’s men, who moved up to third.
Elsewhere, Tal Ben Haim gave Israel a 41st-minute lead but by half-time they were behind thanks to Edin Visca and an Edin Dzeko penalty before Visca wrapped up the win 15 minutes from time, as Bosnia and Herzegovina recorded their second straight Group B win.