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.
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