One by one, Wales’s supporters rippled up from their seats in anticipation of lift-off, a mini Mexican wave of sorts. Gareth Bale was unperturbed by the eerie sense of expectation and, after one final deep breath and four dainty, magical steps forward he proceeded to curl an immaculate left-footed strike into the top corner, via the underside of the crossbar. It was an otherworldly free-kick that helped put Wales one win from reaching a first World Cup since 1958 and the prospect of mixing it with Brazil and Argentina on the biggest stage.
As Wales went on a victory lap at full time to a backdrop of Yma o Hyd, Bale and Wayne Hennessey peeled off to make a beeline to touch the frame of the goal at which he opened the scoring against Austria, whose dreams of Qatar 2022 abruptly ended here.
Bale’s second goal was equally stunning, instinctively arrowing another left-foot shot into a corner after taking the ball in his stride inside the box following a short corner. But it is his preposterous first that will live particularly long in the memory.
The buildup to this game was dominated by concerns about Bale’s fitness but he would depart the field in stoppage time to a standing ovation and with a touch of cramp after completing more minutes than he has in the past four months combined for Real Madrid.
After opening the scoring Bale slid, belly first, on to the turf in celebration and dragged the Wales emblem into his mouth. He was equally revved-up after doubling his and his country’s advantage six minutes into the second half, repeatedly beating the crest on his chest. “I can hit a free-kick if I am able to play,” Bale said afterwards.
The 32-year-old has been heavily criticised in the Spanish media throughout his nine-year stay in Madrid. Asked if he was sending a pointed message with his celebrations, Bale replied: “No, I don’t need to send anything. It’s a waste of my time. It’s disgusting and they should all be ashamed of themselves. I’m not fussed.”
There was pure elation in the stands when Bale’s free-kick flew in after 25 minutes. Aaron Ramsey embraced Bale as if he would never let go and on the touchline the interim Wales manager, Robert Page, who appeared close to tears during a spine-tingling national anthem, 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 lacking until that point. They were galvanised and energised, not for the first time, by Bale’s brilliance and Ramsey came close to adding a second five minutes before the interval but Heinz Lindner made a superb save when the midfielder smacked an effort at goal.
At least Wales supporters have a few months to shake off the inevitable hangovers, their playoff final against either Scotland or Ukraine rescheduled for June. Marcel Sabitzer’s second-half shot, deflected in via Ben Davies, pulled a goal back for Austria but Wales should have restored their two-goal cushion soon afterwards through the menacing Daniel James. He was foiled by Lindner after being threaded through by Harry Wilson and James squandered an even better opening when he allowed Nicolas Seiwald to intervene after racing clear of the Austria defence on halfway.
It could have been a very different picture at half-time had Christoph Baumgartner seized on a gaping opening in the Wales defence with five minutes gone. Sabitzer slipped Baumgartner clean through on goal where he was faced by Hennessey, winning his 99th cap, but Neco Williams dashed in to make a last-ditch block and Baumgartner’s strike, via a tiny deflection, looped up on to the crossbar.
Austria, all in black, were businesslike and unruffled early on but Ramsey, who has also been starved of regular game time at club level, went close to scoring and Bale’s wonder goal shifted the entire landscape. “I will run into the ground for this country and we all did that,” Bale said. “It is half a job done.”
More than three hours before kick-off, this stadium was going thorough one last rehearsal. The anthems – both official and unofficial – could be heard as supporters, bedecked in replica shirts, filed out of Ninian Park station and began to congregate in hope and a tinge of trepidation.
“When you’ve got somebody like Gareth – and there were questions coming into the game about whether he was fit – even if he is 60% or 70% fit, you know he is going to play because he steps up to the plate,” Page said. “It was one of the best free-kicks I have ever seen. I couldn’t be more proud of the players.”
Source: The Guardian