Wales 2 Austria 1
In the buildup to this game the premise had been that Wales's biggest names would come to the party and how Cardiff and beyond will enjoy Gareth Bale's otherworldly free-kick that set them on the path to a World Cup playoff final.
At least Wales supporters will have a few months to shake off the inevitable hangovers, the final hurdle against either Scotland or Ukraine, originally set for next week, now not until June.
Bale left to a standing ovation after completing more minutes than he has for the past four months altogether, his outlandish first-half free-kick teeing up a precious victory. Bale scored a vital second early in the second half before Marcel Sabitzer's shot, deflected in via Ben Davies, halved the deficit. That proved nothing more than a consolation as Austria's hopes of reaching Qatar abruptly ended.
More than three hours before kick-off, this stadium was going through one last rehearsal. The national anthems could be heard as supporters, bedecked in replica shirts, filed out of the Ninian Park station and congregated in hope of better luck this time. Most vividly remember the pain of missing out on qualifying for Russia in 2018 after a playoff defeat to the Republic of Ireland here, and many Russia's win across town at the Millennium Stadium in 2003. Some bargained on a different story this time. And then for the real thing.
"Now is the time, don't hold back," roared the stadium announcer, rallying a partisan crowd. A raw rendition of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau was spine-tingling, the interim Wales manager Robert Page close to tears. Some fans had already succumbed to the emotion that provided a warm undercurrent throughout.
The key thing for Wales was that Bale and Aaron Ramsey were on the team-sheet. In that order. Page said it would be foolish not to start either despite both being thin on minutes since the last international camp in November. Bale had played twice for Real Madrid in that time frame, his last appearance a three-minute cameo off the bench against Paris Saint-Germain but how he would make light of those numbers.
Harry Wilson was crudely blocked off by Christoph Baumgartner when attempting to reach Daniel James's flick and the referee awarded a free-kick a little more than 20 yards from goal. Then arrived a great sense of expectation, an overwhelming appetite for the spectacular. Supporters cheered Bale's name as he took a few breaths. Then, one by one, fans rippled up from their seats to prepare for lift-off, a mini Mexican wave of sorts. Bale was unperturbed and, after one last deep breath and four dainty, magical steps, he proceeded to curl an immaculate left-footed strike into the top corner, in off the underside of the bar.
Bale slid, belly first, on to the turf in celebration and pulled the Wales crest into his mouth. There was pure elation in the stands and Ramsey embraced Bale as if he would never let go. Page leapt to his feet, mobbed by his coaching staff. A red flare billowed with smoke in front of an ecstatic Canton Stand.
It was a goal that offered Wales a command they were until that point lacking. They were galvanised and energised, not for the first time, by Bale's brilliance. Ramsey came close to adding a second goal five minutes before the interval but Austria's Heinz Lindner made a superb save when the midfielder smacked an effort goalwards that was sneaking in at the near post.
It could have been a very different picture at half-time had Baumgartner seized on an opening in the Wales defence with five minutes gone. Sabitzer slipped Baumgartner clean through on goal where he was faced by Wayne Hennessey in his 99th cap. Neco Williams dashed across to make a last-ditch block and Baumgartner's strike, via a tiny deflection, looped up on to the crossbar.
Until Bale’s imperious strike, Austria, all in black, were businesslike and appeared unruffled aside from when Ramsey, who made his first league start for Rangers last Sunday, went close to latching on to James’s cross at the back post. But they had no chance of repelling Bale’s wondrous effort.
Aside from needing to adjust his topknot, a steely-eyed Bale strode back to the dressing room with tunnel vision. Perhaps he knew he would sink Austria with another dart. James had won a corner after a furrowing run upfield and Wales played it short. An attack that appeared relatively harmless culminated with Bale beating the crest on his chest once more. James swung the ball into the box, where Davies nudged the ball on to Bale. There was still plenty of work to do, an awkward angle to negotiate but Bale steadied himself and arrowed a shot into the far corner.
Wales were in dreamland. Bale was purring, setting James free with a delicious outside-of-the-boot pass. But Austria would not lie down and halved Wales's advantage when Sabitzer pulled a goal back on 64 minutes. The Bayern Munich forward drove inside and his shot cannoned off Davies's foot to deflect past Hennessey. Wales could have restored their cushion three minutes later but Lindner foiled James after being threaded through by Wilson. With 70 minutes gone, James passed up an even better opening when he allowed Nicolas Seiwald to intervene after racing clear of the Austria defence on halfway.
There was the odd late scare, Davies clearing a panicked shot in stoppage time but Wales held on to savour victory. – Guardian