The Season Ticket
Plenty left to unfold in Welsh Euro 2020 drama
A draw, at home to Azerbaijan, would have meant Welsh prospects at appearing at Euro 2020 would have been as bleak as a cold opening in an episode of Hinterland.
Such a result, which looked likely as Friday night’s game in Cardiff ran into its closing act, would have seen Wales cut adrift from Hungary and Croatia and reliant on an extraordinary run of high-end performances, and luck, over the closing games in Group E.
In fairness, such as it is, performances fusing calibre and character are still needed. But the chasm with the top two sides is not what it could have been. It’s 3 points. Croatia and Hungary still need to come to Wales, for some massive games.
But there are no massive games if you don’t beat the likes of Nikola Jurčević’s Azerbaijani side. And beat them Wales did, but only just about.
Despite, what looks robust on the surface, with 65 percent for Wales in terms of possession, Ryan Giggs and melancholy looked set to fuse. Possession does not necessarily equate to dominance. The 3 Welsh shots on target over the course of the game underpinned this.
With Bale, you may always give Wales a chance. But more so, with Bale in this kind of form, it is less snatching at hope, and more a practical possibility when you have this level of quality at your disposal.
Bale looked lean and sharp. He has put in the hours on rowing machines over the summer. There was surely more to it than that, and a cynical vantage point would point to Bale emphasizing how his fitness has benefited from rowing, coinciding with the opening of ROWBOTS, a new gym in London.
A stones throw from Stamford Bridge, Hyde Park and Madame Tussauds, Bale is one of several investors in this new fitness studio. His emphasis on this being at the epicentre of his improved physical cut, could draw out the cynics. But all this aside, he has clearly worked on his fitness.
If he looked sluggish in the games away to Croatia and Hungary in early June, more so in the latter game, there is more of a bounce now. Uncertainty at Real Madrid didn’t look like it was going to end well. How interested is Zinedine Zidane in the former Tottenham Hotspur player?
Well probably pretty interested at this stage. Finishing the 2-2 draw against Villarreal with a red card for a high challenge may have been foolhardy. But 2 goals from him salvaged a draw, and ended his drought in the league. 169 days. Not that anyone was counting.
Within four minutes of the game in Cardiff he was running at pace, with verve and a swerve, before a fine ball into Tom Lawrence nearly unlocked the visitors.
He drifted into corners, and he darted into the middle at times, at the centre of the pressure point which forced Pavlo Pashaev into an awkwardly casual own-goal.
If Azerbaijan didn’t look likely to equalize, Wales took it as a given that they wouldn’t. That was until a lapse in concentration from Neil Taylor and a certain level of sloppiness from Wayne Hennessey allowed Mahir Madatov to equalize.
When Lawrence missed a fine effort and angled his shot wide of Salahat Agayev’s goal, it was getting tense.
Bale though, was on hand for a loose, high ball to head home. For a moment, just a brief one, there was doubt. But the ball had clearly crossed the line.
Welsh tension released, Bale at the epicentre of it all; disaster was avoided. There is no guarantee of qualification. But Wales have so much of it in their own hands. And Bale could still prove to a significant protagonist in how this modern Welsh drama unfolds.