MINSK: Gareth Bale ended his two-year Wales scoring drought as his hat-trick secured a thrilling 3-2 World Cup qualifying win over Belarus in Kazan.
Bale had not added to his record 33 goals since scoring against Croatia in October 2019 – a run of 16 games.
But the Real Madrid forward struck twice from the penalty spot before his dramatic stoppage-time winner broke Belarus hearts, Vitali Lisakovich and Pavel Sedko having scored in the space of two first-half minutes to turn the clash on its head.
Bale converted from the spot after five and 69 minutes and was then in the perfect position to turn Daniel James’ cross goalwards as time appeared to be running out on Wales’ bid to close down top-two Belgium and the Czech Republic in Group E.
But Wales are only four points behind group leaders Belgium, with a game in hand, going into Wednesday’s home qualifier against Estonia.
Wales had been decimated by a spate of withdrawals which had rekindled unhappy memories of the John Toshack era between 2004 and 2010.
Injuries, visa issues, suspensions and Covid-19 had left interim manager Rob Page without 10 of the 23 players who were in the matchday squad for Wales’ last competitive fixture, the 4-0 defeat to Denmark at Euro 2020.
Key quartet Aaron Ramsey, Connor Roberts, Joe Rodon and Kieffer Moore were among that number, while Ethan Ampadu, Tyler Roberts and Brandon Cooper had been unable to get their Russian visa sorted in time and had returned home after Wednesday’s friendly draw in Finland.
UEFA’s decision to choose Kazan – Russia’s fifth largest city and 700 kilometres east of Moscow – as a neutral venue with Page’s squad unable to enter Belarus by air because of sanctions against the Minsk government had infuriated the Football Association of Wales.
But captain Bale, winning his 98th cap, returned to the starting line-up alongside James as Brennan Johnson and Rubin Colwill made their first competitive starts.
James had missed the Finland friendly after completing his deadline-day switch from Manchester United to Leeds but scored the winner when the two sides last met in Cardiff in September 2019.
Belarus, ranked 89th in the FIFA world rankings and 70 places lower than Wales, had suffered a second defeat in three World Cup qualifiers in the Czech Republic on Thursday and must have feared the worst inside five minutes.
Bale was clattered by goalkeeper Sergei Chernik and banished the memory of his penalty miss against Turkey at the Euros by dispatching the spot-kick convincingly.
Joe Allen soon forced Chernik into a goal-line stop and Wales appeared in cruise control on what was a sticky surface difficult for passing.
Vladislav Klimovich went close at the other end as Belarus bared their teeth on the counter-attack and Wales then fell apart in the space of 90 seconds.
Faced with a bouncing ball, Chris Gunter was penalised for a high foot on Nikolai Zolotov and Lisakovich drilled home the equaliser from 12 yards.
Wales were still visibly shocked when Lisakovich shrugged off James Lawrence’s weak challenge and fed the unmarked Sedko to fire Belarus ahead.
It almost got worse for Wales as Aleksandr Sachivko and Klimovich were inches away from extending Belarus’ lead and punishing visitors who were looking more ragged by the minute.
Wales showed more intensity after the break with Chernik reacting well to tip Johnson’s well-struck effort from under his crossbar.
But they were appearing to run out of ideas until Max Ebong shoved Ben Davies in the back and Bale converted from the spot again.
Wales goalkeeper Danny Ward kept the bustling Lisakovich busy with a superb save and the importance of that stop was underlined in the dying seconds.
Substitute Mark Harris’ effort was cleared off the line but James kept the move alive and Bale’s finishing instincts did the rest to keep Wales’ World Cup hopes alive.