Gareth Bale keeps Wales’ World Cup hopes alive with Belarus hat-trick

Gareth Bale keeps Wales’ World Cup hopes alive with Belarus hat-trick

Just as it seemed Wales’s hopes of qualifying for the World Cup were in danger of drifting out of sight behind closed doors in Kazan, Gareth Bale completed his hat-trick to supply a winning formula. Wales did it the hard way – two disastrous first-half minutes saw them trail at the break – but Bale struck in second-half stoppage time to kill off a stubborn Belarus side that fell to the floor as the ball squeezed in beyond goalkeeper Sergei Chernik.

For Wales, a comeback victory against a team ranked 70 places below them via a scruffy winner was laced with relief as well as joy. It was etched on the faces of the players as they ran to mob Bale, who ended his Wales goal drought. The substitute Mark Harris latched on to a telegraphed pass by Joe Morrell and while Chernik twice denied the Cardiff forward a dream debut when clean through, Daniel James kept his calm amid the chaos to pick out Bale, who swung a left-foot shot at goal on the spin.

The turnaround means Wales will keep pace with Group E leaders Belgium, providing they beat Estonia in Cardiff on Wednesday. “It was like Andorra in the first Euro [2016] qualifiers in 2014, to get that kind of last-minute goal to get the three points and keep the momentum going,” Bale said. “As soon I saw it [the ball] go just past his fingers and roll in, I was absolutely ecstatic.”

Things looked rosy when Bale dispatched the first of his two expert penalties after five minutes, scoring his first goal for his country in almost two years, but the game flipped when Chris Gunter conceded a spot kick approaching the half-hour. Gunter is the most-capped Wales player of all time but was a little naive when an awkward bouncing ball dropped inside the box. Nikolai Zolotov chased Artyom Bykov’s hopeful pass upfield and Gunter was penalised for a high foot, allowing Vitali Lisakovich to hammer in from 12 yards.

Robert Page’s side unravelled from there and 92 seconds later the Wales goalkeeper Danny Ward was fishing the ball out of his net again. Rubin Colwill, the Cardiff teenager asked to lead the line in the absence of club-mate Kieffer Moore, failed to hold the ball on halfway and Belarus turned over possession before splitting Wales’ central defenders. Vladislav Klimovich poked a pass through for Lisakovich, who comfortably rolled James Lawrence before powering forward and squaring for Pavel Sedko to slot in under Ward.

Wales were flustered, suspect in defence and overpowered and often outnumbered in midfield. In truth, Belarus should have increased their advantage before the interval, Lisakovich in particular tormenting the Wales backline. Aleksandr Sachivko stooped to send a header wide after Lawrence was caught the wrong side of his man at a corner and on the brink of half-time Klimovich arrowed a shot inches wide after fooling Ben Davies inside the box.

Wales travelled light to Russia, Uefa’s neutral venue of choice owing to sanctions against the Belarus government, with 13 players absent due to injury, illness and visa ineligibility. Brennan Johnson, one of three players retained from Wednesday’s friendly draw in Finland, played off Colwill on his first competitive start and early in the second half he forced Chernik into a fine save after roaming into space on the edge of the 18-yard box.

Belarus seemed happy with their lot but came unstuck when Max Ebong clumsily barged into Davies in the box, presenting Bale with a chance to pull Wales level. Bale stunted his run-up and, for the second time, sent Chernik the wrong way from the spot. He rushed to fetch the ball and then found a priceless winner as the clock ticked towards the 94th minute, Chernik making a meal of Bale’s shot and letting it squirm painfully past him. “I said to the players: ‘Good teams, even when they are not playing well, find a way to win’, and that’s what we’ve done,” Page said. “The big players stepped up and Gareth certainly comes into that category. He is the captain and he led by example. He stepped up to the plate to win us the game.”