Gareth Bale puts Wales on the brink of Euro 2016
Israel win on Sunday will send Coleman’s side to first major tournament since 1958
A day that started with Wales climbing above England in the Fifa rankings for the first time ended in glorious fashion for Chris Coleman’s players as Gareth Bale continued his remarkable record for his country with a thumping header eight minutes from time to put them firmly on the road to France.
Another victory over Israel in Cardiff on Sunday and the dream of qualifying for a first major tournament since 1958 will become reality.
Either way, it is a matter of when and not if Wales secure their place at next summer’s European Championship finals after Bale, at the end of a balmy evening in Nicosia when Coleman’s side toiled for long periods, produced a moment of quality when it mattered most.
For much of the night the world’s most expensive footballer had struggled and at times it seemed as if he was trying too hard to bend a disappointing game in Wales’s favour. Yet everything fell into place eight minutes from time when Ashley Richards, who was the standout performer for Wales, produced the cross from the right that Bale met with an emphatic header to spark wild celebrations on the bench.
To put Bale’s influence on this team into some sort of context, he has now scored six and set up two of the nine goals that Wales have racked up during qualifying. There was still time for some late drama at the other end when Wayne Hennessey, diving low to his left, clawed Marios Nikolaou’s shot around the post.
Preparations had not exactly been ideal for Coleman. Already missing Joe Allen and David Vaughan, the Wales manager lost a third defensive midfielder on the eve of the game when Joe Ledley pulled up with a hamstring problem. Dave Edwards, the Wolverhampton Wanderers midfielder, was drafted into the team to make his first start for his country since a 6-1 defeat against Serbia three years ago.
It looked like being the perfect return for Edwards when he met Bale’s inswinging cross with a close-range header in the 27th minute but Szymon Marciniak, the Polish referee, penalised Hal Robson-Kanu for a slight push as the ball was sent over. The decision felt harsh but 60 seconds later opportunity knocked for Wales again.
Robson-Kanu turned sharply on the halfway line and the ball broke kindly for Bale to bear down on the Cyprus goal. The applause that reverberated around three sides of the stadium moments later reflected how well Kostas Laifis, the Cyprus central defender, did to recover and stop Bale in his tracks with a superbly timed challenge. Behind the goal, 3,500 Wales fans had been waiting for the net to bulge.
At times in the first half Wales looked a little disjointed. Bale was sloppy in possession on a couple of occasions and Cyprus, after a slow start, grew in confidence. Nestor Mytidis, their powerful No9, was causing a few problems and it took a last-ditch block from the excellent Ashley Williams to cut out the striker’s low centre after Bale had given away the ball.
Wales’s best moments in the first half were in the opening 10 minutes.
Picking up the ball inside his own half, Bale set off on one of those driving runs where he eats up the ground in front of him and leaves defenders in his wake. He released the ball to Ramsey in the inside-left channel and was hoping for the return pass but the Arsenal midfielder opted to go it alone and his curling shot from the edge of the area flew inches over the angle of crossbar and post.
Ramsey, playing alongside Bale in a 3-4-2-1 formation, was particularly influential in those early stages as he roamed across the pitch and it was a foul on him that led to a golden opportunity for Neil Taylor to give Wales the lead. Bale’s 35-yard free-kick dipped wickedly, forcing Antonis Giorgallides into a hurried and untidy save. Several Wales players were alert to the rebound but Taylor got their first and swept a first-time shot from the corner of the six-yard box that Giorgallides managed to block.
Although Cyprus had come into the game more it was not until the 46th minute that Wayne Hennessey had a save of note to make, when Nikolaou’s speculative shot seemed to catch him by surprise. At the other end Bale set Robson-Kanu free but Giorgallides, to his credit, saw the danger coming and was quickly off his line as the Reading forward tried to take the ball around him. Robson-Kanu appealed for a penalty but the Cyprus goalkeeper got a hand to the ball first.
The game seemed to be petering out but then came the moment Wales had been waiting for as Richards, getting forward on the right, swung in a perfectly flighted cross for Bale to do what he does best.