WALES are poised to end their 58-year wait to play at a major tournament after Gareth Bale’s late winner on a balmy night in Nicosia.
Bale struck eight minutes from time – his sixth goal in seven games in Euro 2016 qualifying – when he met Jazz Richards’ cross with a thumping header to give Cyprus goalkeeper Antonis Georgallides no chance.
The 1-0 triumph puts Wales within touching distance of a place at next summer’s European Championship in France – a feat that would be confirmed by beating Israel in Cardiff on Sunday night.
But in warm conditions and on a difficult hard surface, it was anything but easy for Wales, who had to grind out a victory as precious as any in recent times.
Wales started the day in buoyant mood, having moved above England in the Fifa rankings for the first time in their history; they ended it by completing their best ever run in competitive fixtures without defeat – nine games.
Both sides carried moments of danger in a high-energy start, but it was Wales who had the first opportunity when Bale drew defenders for Aaron Ramsey to fire just over the crossbar from 18 yards.
Wales were even closer to taking the lead after ten minutes when Georgallides made a hash of Bale’s 30-yard free-kick before redeeming himself by blocking Neil Taylor’s follow-up effort.
There were Cypriot howls for a penalty when Nestoras Mitidis tumbled in the box under Ashley Williams’ challenge and the Wales captain was in the right place to cut out a near-post cross as the hosts threatened.
Bale had uncharacteristically been guilty of a couple of misplaced passes but he sprang to life after 27 minutes when he toyed with a couple of defenders before crossing from the right. David Edwards met it to head home, but Polish referee Szymon Marciniak spotted a push on a Cyprus defender with Hal Robson-Kanu, perhaps harshly, judged to be the guilty man.
Wales breathed a sigh of relief five minutes before the break when Constaninos Charalambidis’s free-kick picked out Andreas Makris, but his rising drive cleared the bar by some distance.
The visitors needed to establish their authority on the contest but Cyprus almost took advantage when Wales again coughed up possession straight after the restart.
Marios Nicolaou took aim from 25 yards and Wayne Hennessey could only shovel the ball out in front of him for the outstanding Williams to clear.
Wales were in need of inspiration and it came late on when Richards crossed and Bale lost his marker to power home his 18th goal for his country.
Cyprus: Georgallides, Antoniades, Laifis, Junior, Demetriou, Makridis, Economides, Nicolaou, Charalambidis (Englezou 74), Makris (Sotiriou 84), Mitidis (Kolokoudias 65). Subs Not Used: Negri, Charalambous, Sielis, Angeli,Stylianou, Artymatas, Kastanos, Panagi.
Wales: Hennessey, Davies, A Williams, King, Edwards, Gunter, Taylor, Richards, Bale (Church 90), Ramsey (MacDonald 90), Robson-Kanu (Vokes 67). Subs Not Used: F Williams, Fox, Ledley, Cotterill, Collins, Lawrence, J Williams, Henley, Ward.