Scotland’s previously slender hopes of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup were obliterated once and for all in the most harrowing fashion on a drizzly night in Cardiff.
As the heavens opened in the closing stages of this endlessly-pulsating battle of Britain, Craig Levein’s men saw their bid for Brazil blown ruthlessly off course in a Bale-force gust.
A few ropey decisions from German referee Florian Mayer did little to aid the Scots’ cause, but it was the gladiator-like Tottenham Hotspur wide man who, despite blotting his copybook by going down easily to win a penalty, proved the difference between the teams.
With the recalled Steven Fletcher back in the side and leading the line to good effect, Scotland looked on course for what would have been the biggest win of Levein’s largely uninspiring reign. They led at the break through James Morrison’s strike despite enduring something of a Bale-inspired Welsh storm for long periods of the first half.
They looked home and hosed when Fletcher nodded in what would have been a second goal from close range in the final quarter of the match, only for the goal to be controversially ruled out. The Welsh, always a threat, breathed a sigh of relief and Bale, the outstanding player on the park by a considerable distance, turned the game on its head with two goals in the last ten minutes.
As the rain fell from the South Wales sky and the Cardiff City Stadium went wild with delight, the Scotland players knew their dreams of appearing at the next World Cup had effectively vanished. Five points from a possible nine in this wretchedly difficult group would have given them a glimmer of hope. With two points from nine, and the hardest games still to come, it’s impossible to see the Scots – or the increasingly beleaguered Levein – turning things round now.
With the manager’s back already to the wall in the lead-up to this must-win game, he opted to give his baying public what they wanted. Possibly for the first time in his Scotland reign, he selected a team which bore a strong resemblance to the one the rest of the country would have gone for. After a two-year absence from the squad, Fletcher was, unsurprisingly, selected ahead of Kenny Miller to lead the attack, while Kris Commons, a controversial omission from Levein’s original squad, was catapulted straight into the starting line-up despite only being called in on Tuesday.
The two midfield warhorses, Darren Fletcher and Scott Brown, also came straight in, with Gary Caldwell dropping back into defence as the team assumed a seemingly far more assured look than the one which had stuttered to home draws against Serbia and Macedonia last month.
After rousing renditions of the respective anthems, Scotland set about seizing control of the opening exchanges. Wearing their white away kit, they dominated the opening five minutes or so on a lush surface which had been subjected to that pre-match downpour.
It looked like this might just be a rare fruitful road trip for a side who had won only two of their previous nine competitive away games.
However, Wales soon found their way into the game, with that man Bale carving out the first real opening after nine minutes.
Deployed on the right, the Spurs sensation cut inside the exposed Christophe Berra and bent a menacing shot agonisingly wide of Allan McGregor’s far post from just inside the box.
Scotland’s early dominance was diminished, although Alan Hutton did manage their first proper effort of the match when he shot over from the edge of the box after 21 minutes. But Wales were proving a regular threat and Brown and Caldwell were called into some emergency salvation work to prevent Joe Allen levelling after Aaron Ramsey had seized on some slack play from Commons to tee up the Liverpool midfielder in the box.
By the mid-point of the first half, the Welsh fans sensed blood and they were almost given cause for celebration in 26 minutes when Bale provided a sensational cross on his weaker right foot, only for Norwich City forward Steve Morison to head just over.
A minute later, however, just as the Scots looked to be treading water, they made the breakthrough in the most straightforward manner. McGregor pumped the ball forward, Fletcher flicked it on and Morrison, who had run in behind and had all the time he needed to plant a cool finish beyond the helpless Welsh keeper Lewis Price. It was only the fifth competitive away goal the Scots had scored since James McFadden’s famous strike in Paris over five years ago, and the Tartan Army, occupying quarter of the stadium, went ballistic.
However, this certainly wasn’t a cue for Scotland to go on and see out a smooth victory. With the peerless Bale on the pitch, there was little chance of that. He was to prove simply unplayable, routinely sprinting past the helpless Danny Fox and sparking panic in the Scottish ranks.
After Caldwell was booked for a foul on Celtic midfielder Joe Ledley, Bale pinged the resultant free-kick into the dark blue sea of Scotland fans behind McGregor’s goal. Allen then smacked one wide, as the Welsh signalled that they were in no mood for surrender. Although it was the hosts who looked more dangerous, Scotland were always a threat. Fletcher got his first sight of goal in 38 minutes when a Fox cross was flicked on at the near post by Morrison but the Sunderland striker, just six yards out, was unable to get enough purchase on his shot and the danger was cleared.
In what was becoming a recurring pattern, Wales went straight up the pitch and Chris Gunter fired a long-ranger just past.
Then, in 41 minutes, Bale, for the umpteenth time, had the Scots on the back foot as he burst down the right, leaving both Shaun Maloney and Fox in his slipstream, but his tempting cut-back was volleyed over by Ramsey. Scotland should really have doubled their advantage just before the break but Morrison lashed over from close range after Fletcher had cleverly nodded a Hutton cross down into his path, the ball bouncing a little high for the West Brom man to make the contact he would have liked.
The Scots were forced into a half-time change, with Brown, whose fitness was always a concern, replaced by Charlie Adam, but this didn’t have any initially obvious detrimental effect on the Scots as they took the sting out of the Welsh.
Indeed, it was the Scots who created the first chance after the break when some terrible Welsh defending left Morrison all on his own in the box, but Price made a superb save to deny the midfielder.
The Welsh weren’t finished though. Far from it. Twice in the space of two minutes midway through the second half they had loud penalty claims waved away, although the second of those, when Berra looked to barge his opponent in the box, seemed more of a stonewaller than the first when Ramsey went down too easily.
It was end to end by now and Scotland thought they’d sealed it when Fletcher nodded in Charlie Adam’s cross but the goal was ruled out, seemingly for the ball having swung marginally out of play. It proved the turning point as the overdue Wales equaliser arrived after 80 minutes.
Bale went down easily under the challenge of Maloney as he burst into the box but this time the spot-kick was awarded. The Tottenham man duly beat McGregor and Scotland’s dreams of Rio were again hanging by a thread.
Kenny Miller and Jamie Mackie were sent on for the last six minutes, sparking a brief Scottish flurry, but it was the Welsh, with their tails up, who would go on to win it. Fittingly, it was Bale who capitalised on some slack play from Adam to produce a sensational strike from the edge of the box which sailed over McGregor.
It had, in stages, looked like being the game that might have sparked Levein’s seemingly-doomed reign, but there was no legislating for the form of the imperious Bale, allied to some trademark Scottish misfortune.
The bid to make Brazil is already all over bar the shouting.
Wales: Price, Gunter, B Davies, Vaughan, Blake, Williams, Allen, Ledley (Robson-Kanu 70), Morison (C Davies 64), Ramsey, Bale. Unused subs: Brown, Ricketts, King, Richards, Church, Vokes, Wilson, Fon Williams.
Scotland: McGregor, Hutton, Berra, Caldwell, Fox, D Fletcher, Brown (Adam 46), Commons (Mackie 84), Morrison (Miller 84), Maloney, S Fletcher. Unused subs: Marshall, Gilks, Mulgrew, McArthur, Miller, Mackie, Martin, Phillips, Webster.
Ref: F Meyer (Ger)