Gareth Bale’s timely header kept Wales’ Euro 2020 qualification hopes alive with a 2-1 win over Azerbaijan, capping a whirlwind week both for club and country after a forgettable summer packed with dramatic developments predicting his potential Real Madrid departure.
He wasn’t expected to still be there. So you could excuse the collective surprise when Zinedine Zidane – their relationship is supposedly irreparable – started him in Real’s opening three La Liga fixtures. Bale netted a brace to save Los Blancos’ blushes against Villarreal on Sunday, before receiving two stoppage-time bookings and being sent off in the dying seconds.
Consequently, he’ll miss their next league fixture against Levante (September 14) but right now, Wales is of paramount importance. Given the precarious situation in Group E, their Euro 2020 qualification hopes were hanging on a thread once Qarabag striker Mahir Emreli equalised on the hour mark at the Cardiff City Stadium.
The hosts were stunned into silence. Azerbaijan, ranked world number 109, were about to snatch their first qualification point against a side that just three years ago reached the semi-finals of a tournament they might not even compete in next summer.
But alas, their savour stepped up to the plate. Talk about timing. Captain Gareth had only netted two and created one assist in his last eight internationals before this fixture.
Bale proves man of the moment
He danced past defenders with his usual vigour and created their opener, striking from distance and watching as Pavlo Pashaev’s inadvertent flick-on deceived goalkeeper Salahat Agayev, leaving him stranded. With seven minutes left and tension intensifying by the second, Joe Allen’s volley took two deflections before looping into the air. Bale leaped high above his marker and headed goalwards, with ‘keeper Agayev in no man’s land.
Despite the visitors’ best efforts to complete a heroic goalline clearance, the 30-year-old wheeled away to celebrate. He knew his effort creeped over the line and moments later, his teammates and the raucous home support exploded into sheer delirium too.
Post-match, national team manager Ryan Giggs revealed it was a typical captain’s display and one he wasn’t surprised by given the forward’s recent form.
“He’s scored so many important goals for Wales over the years. He’s the captain, everyone looks up to him. I said before the game that usually when Gareth scores, he keeps on scoring so I was delighted to see him on the scoresheet for Real at the weekend! Like the rest of the team, he showed great character and I’m really pleased for him.”
Wales host Belarus on Monday evening in an international friendly before their final four qualification fixtures are played over the course of the next two months, as follows:
Slovakia – October 10
Croatia – October 13
Azerbaijan – November 16
Hungary – November 19