KEIR RADNEDGE in CARDIFF —- Wales are edging closer to a place in the World Cup finals for only the second occasion in their history and the first time since they reached the 1958 quarter-finals in Sweden.
Two superb Gareth Bale goals provided them with a 2-1 win over Austria in their European playoff semi-final at the Cardiff City Stadium after a nervy finale.
The visitors had kept their hopes alive when a shot from Marcel Sabitzer clipped Ben Davies and wrong-footed keeper Wayne Hennessey. They then piled forward relentlessly for the remaining halfhour but resolute defending just about saw Wales over the line.
The Red Dragon has been within similar fire-breathing range of the finals half a dozen times previously and they hosted the Austrians well aware that their 10-place superiority in the FIFA World Ranking counted for nothing out on the pitch.
The winners had been due to face Scotland or Ukraine on Tuesday for a place in Qatar in November but the other Path A playoff was postponed because of the Russian invasion and so, also, was the final. FIFA and UEFA have provisionally fixed it for June but even that now looks unlikely given the military situation.
Wales were happy to see their inspirations, Bale and Aaron Ramsey, starting even though they had managed only 16 outings between them this season for Real Madrid and Juventus/Rangers respectively.
Wales qualified for the play-offs by finishing second in their group behind Belgium. Thus they were seeded for the single-match semi-finals against the Austrians who finished fourth behind Denmark, Scotland and Israel and earned a play-off spot only via the Nations League ‘lucky losers’ option.
The renowned Welsh fervour made itself felt in the first minute. Austrian captain David Alaba was caught in possession and Daniel James sliced into the penalty box to force a smart save from Heinz Lindner.
Austria should have opened the scoring three minutes later. A quick inter-passing movement caught the Welsh defence wide open, Sabitzer’s through pass was perfect but Christoph Baumgartner, with the goal at his mercy, hit the bar.
This was not Baumgartner’s night. In the 23rd minute the Hoffenheim midfielder was booked for body-checking Harry Wilson and Bale curled his free kick into the upper near corner of the net. It was his 37th goal for his country, albeit keeper Linder was badly caught flapping from the centre of his goal line.
Lindner redeemed himself six minutes before the interval after his defence was again harassed out of possession. Ramsey arrowed in from the right wing and Lindner finger-tipped the drive wide of his left-hand post.
Austria made a bright start to the second half but their bubble was burst after only six minutes when they failed to clear a corner, Davies touched the ball back and Bale pounced with his right foot to step outside the defence and angle a shot home with his left.
Bale wasted the chance of a hat-trick by shooting high over the bar in a right-wing counter-attack.
This rare failure proved costly. Austria returned to the attack and a soft shot from Sabitzer was deflected beyond the wrong-footed Wayne Hennessey off Ben Davies.
The remainder of the match saw Austria play their best football of the night but they lacked a crucial penetrative edge and resorted too much, in increasing desperation, to long lofted balls down the centre of the pitch where Davies and Joe Rodon were superior.
At one point it appeared that Wales might wilt but they clung on. Instead of Wales running out of legs, Austria ran out of time.
Wales: Hennessey – Ampadu, Rodon, B Davies – C Roberts, Ramsey, Allen, N Williams – Wilson, James (B Johnson), Bale (Mepham 90).
Austria: Lindner – Lainer (Gregoritsch 88), Dragovic, Hinteregger,, Alaba – Seiwald, Laimer (Kalajdzic 55) – Schlager (Lazaro 77), Sabitzer, Baumgartner (Weimann 77) – Arnautovic.
Ref: Marciniak (Poland).