Wales thrash Belarus as Gareth Bale embraces supporting role in 100th appearance for his country
Wales 5 Belarus 1
Gareth Bale has never wanted it to all be about him on international duty, where he has always been – in his own mind, at least – just another member of the Wales side. The outside world has rarely seen it that way, of course, but one suspects that Bale might have quietly enjoyed the fact that the delights of his 100th international appearance were shared around his team rather than being focused entirely on him.
Yes, this was a night for the Wales captain to become a centurion for his country. But once the action started it was far from the Bale show, with Aaron Ramsey, Neco Williams, Ben Davies and Connor Roberts also contributing memorable moments on another uplifting night for Rob Page’s side.
In the end, it spoke volumes of the Welsh performance that Bale was only needed for 45 minutes. Wales were totally dominant against a poor Belarus side, with and without their talisman, and Bale’s recent injury issues meant there was no need to risk him on such a smooth evening.
It helped that the rest of the Welsh attack was so efficient in front of goal, with Ramsey scoring twice to issue another reminder of his quality. The midfielder has only played six minutes for Juventus in the past month yet he looked sharp here as Wales continued their pursuit of next year’s World Cup finals.
The victory in Cardiff meant that Wales require just a point against Belgium in midweek to finish second in their qualifying group, which in theory would give them a more straightforward path to the World Cup. A point against Belgium is far from easy, but Wales have every reason to be confident in front of their own fans.
Those supporters were in predictably fine voice from the off, with Bale inevitably the subject of their songs before the start of the match. The “Red Wall” has never been shy in heralding the top scorer in their country’s footballing history and Bale had spoken this week of his “special connection” with Wales – one which has no doubt been made to feel more special by his difficulties at club level in recent years.
At the final whistle, after the thrashing had been completed, Bale and his team-mates set off on a lap of honour which ended with the captain receiving a special round of applause from the home fans. He also shared a hug with back-up goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, who had made his 98th international appearance as a late substitute.
“We have got the best fans in the world,” Bale said. “To have my 100th cap at home, with them cheering my name, made it very special and a day I will never forget.”
The pinnacle for Bale on the international stage would, of course, be an appearance at a World Cup, a tournament which has eluded Wales since 1958. This qualifying campaign has therefore always had the feeling of being a last chance for Bale, which has only made it seem more important to him and his older team-mates.
The pressure of this particular game, however, had been lessened by results last week and the various complications of the new international calendar. Spain’s victory over Greece guaranteed Wales a World Cup play-off next year thanks to the exploits of Page’s side in the Nations League.
Only by finishing second in this qualifying group could they ensure that the play-off is a home match, and such details could make all the difference in their pursuit of Qatar.
As such there was still plenty of reason to run and fight against Belarus in Cardiff, and more than enough justification for Page’s decision to start Bale in his attack.
It had felt like Gareth Bale Day all the way through the build-up to the match, and at the stadium itself, but after two minutes there was another reminder that this team is so much more than one man. If it is not Bale opening up the opposition defence, it is generally Ramsey instead, and on this occasion it took just two minutes for Ramsey to open the scoring.
“We wanted to be on the front foot early,” said Ramsey. “We have had some great battles against Belgium over the years and hopefully another memorable one on Tuesday.”
His opening goal was in large part thanks to the ineptitude of Sergei Chernik, the Belarus goalkeeper. Davies fired low, and Chernik simply pushed the ball back out to Ramsey, barely two yards from goal. He will not score an easier goal this season.
The second was no better from the hapless Chernik, who dropped low to deny Williams only to forget to engage his arms. The shot trickled over the line, and Wales were coasting. The third came just a few minutes after the break, when Ramsey converted from the penalty spot after Ruslan Yudenkov had handled.
The third meant that Wales were able to enter into a sort of exhibition mode, which is rare indeed for a team that generally does not score many goals. Davies soon added the fourth, his first for his country, as he headed home Harry Wilson’s corner.
There was to be just one moment of frustration: Artem Kontsevoy’s late consolation strike from range. It did nothing to dampen the mood, though, and Roberts soon restored the four-goal advantage by stabbing in the fifth from another set piece.
Wales (3-5-2): Ward 6 (Hennessey 89); Ampadu 6, Rodon 7, Davies 7; C Roberts 7, Ramsey 8 (Morrell 71), Allen 7, Wilson 7, N Williams 7; Bale 6 (Johnson 45), James 6 (T Roberts 76) Booked: Ampadu