Wales 1-1 Croatia: Gareth Bale equaliser keeps Euro 2020 qualification hopes alive
Gareth Bale put his Real Madrid frustrations to one side to net an equaliser for Wales in a 1-1 draw with Croatia that keeps their Euro 2020 qualification hopes alive.
Wales made a slow start at the Cardiff City Stadium on Sunday night and were lucky to be only 1-0 down as Nikola Vlasic opened the scoring (9) but Bale, who has admitted he is "not playing happy" at Madrid, scored a vital leveller on the stroke of half-time (45+3).
Perhaps the hosts could have pushed on for maximum points but they know wins away to Azerbaijan and at home to Hungary would be enough for a top-two spot, as long as Slovakia do not collect four points from their last two fixtures.
It means it is still all to play for in Group E. Fourth-placed Wales are four points behind second-placed Hungary, but Ryan Giggs' men have a game in hand.
Wales travel to face Azerbaijan on November 16 before taking on Hungary in Cardiff three days later in what looks likely to be a winner-takes-all fixture in terms of Euro 2020 qualification. However, if Slovakia pick up four points from their final two games away to Croatia and at home to Azerbaijan, then Wales will not finish in the top two.
Meanwhile, Croatia need just a point from their final game, the visit of Slovakia to Rijeka, to qualify.
How Bale was the saviour again
Croatia settled quickly into their stride, keeping possession nicely before Josip Brekalo fired wide from a decent early position.
Wales failed to learn their lesson and Brekalo broke away again minutes later. He fed Bruno Petkovic, who slid one to Vlasic and from 20 yards out, the former Everton midfielder beat Wayne Hennessey with a low shot which went in off the post.
Croatia nearly doubled their lead when Petkovic found Ivan Perisic, but his header was superbly turned around the post by Hennessey.
Daniel James felt the force of a Domagoj Vida challenged that earned the Croatia defender a yellow card - one of eight yellows in the game - and saw a stretcher called for the Manchester United winger. It looked a bad head injury at first but James eventually returned to his feet and was able to continue.
Wales looked short on ideas but Bale popped up just before the break to net his 33rd goal for his country and certainly one of his most important.
Ben Davies won the ball off Mateo Kovacic and fed his team-mate a clever ball down the inside of Dejan Lovren, who was caught out by Bale's pace and power. The Real Madrid man found the net with a brilliant finish into the far corner.
After the break, the tackles kept flying in and Ethan Ampadu was caught heavily by a hefty Petkovic aerial challenge, with the striker controversially only being shown a yellow card. The challenge ended Ampadu's evening but he did manage to walk off rather gingerly as the game petered out.
The chances dried up, leaving Wales to target back-to-back victories in Baku and Cardiff next month.
Wales: Hennessey (7), Roberts (6), Lockyer (7), Rodon (6), B Davies (7), Ampadu (6), Allen (6), Bale (7), J Williams (6), James (6), Moore (6)
Subs: Morrell (6), T.Roberts (6)
Croatia: Livakovic (6), Jedvaj (6), Lovren (6), Vida (6), Barisic (6), Kovacic (6), Modric (6), Perisic (7), Vlasic (7), Brekalo (6), Petkovic (6).
Subs: Rakitic (6), Rebic (7)
Man of the match: Gareth Bale
It's been a relatively quiet qualification campaign for the Welsh hero, with just one goal to his name - albeit an important one to see off Azerbaijan in Cardiff earlier this year. Sky Sports pundit Danny Gabbidon called for Bale to deliver a performance in the build-up and his former team-mate obliged, finding quality at the right time to finish off one of Wales' few attacks that opened up Croatia.
- Wales have avoided defeat to Croatia for the first time since their first-ever international meeting in August 2002 (also a 1-1 draw), ending a run of four consecutive losses against them.
- Bale has been directly involved in 14 goals in his last 18 starts for Wales in all competitions, scoring 11 and assisting three.
- Vlasic has scored in two of his last three starts for Croatia, with both goals coming away from home.
Ryan Giggs: "We've got to win both games. We're relying on others as well, but we're in it and after these two games I wanted to be in it.
"It won't be easy against two tough teams, but we've shown the quality and concentration that we can possess over these couple of games.
"We'll look forward to those games and [hopefully] get it down to that second game and Hungary here."