Football: Bale leads Wales within touching distance of Euro 2016

Gareth Bale and team mates celebrate at the end of the UEFA Euro 2016 Qualifying Group B match on Sept 3, 2015.
Gareth Bale and team mates celebrate at the end of the UEFA Euro 2016 Qualifying Group B match on Sept 3, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

NICOSIA (AFP) - Gareth Bale put Wales within touching distance of Euro 2016 and a first major tournament appearance for 58 years as the Real Madrid's star's late goal clinched a 1-0 win over Cyprus on Thursday.

Bale's bullet header settled a nervous encounter with just eight minutes remaining in Nicosia to keep Wales top of the Group B and a victory against Israel on Sunday will guarantee their place in next year's finals in France.

Wales last qualified for a major tournament at the 1958 World Cup, with legends like Ryan Giggs, Ian Rush and Mark Hughes all denied the chance to showcase their talents on the biggest stage due to their country's struggles.

But that long and painful spell in the international wilderness could well be consigned to the history books in Cardiff this weekend thanks to the latest heroics from former Tottenham forward Bale, whose sixth goal of the qualifying campaign extended Wales' unbeaten run to seven matches.

The champagne is on ice for Chris Coleman's team, who sit three points ahead of second-placed Belgium and five clear of third-placed Israel with three games remaining.

While this was a hardly a vintage display against a Cyprus team ranked a lowly 82 in the world, the joyous celebrations among Bale and his team-mates at full-time underlined that the result was all that mattered.

"It was always going to be difficult. The pitch was woeful, it was hot and humid, and the opposition had nothing to lose," Coleman said.

"It wasn't one of our better performances. But it's a huge three points. There was a lot of pressure on us and the players handled it magnificently."

Added Bale: "It was more than tough but we were able to nick a goal that has put us in a great position. We know what we have to do."

This is a golden era for Wales; they haven't lost a competitive game for two years and the latest Fifa rankings placed them above England for the first time ever.

Wales threatened first against Cyprus, with Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey curling narrowly over the crossbar from 25 yards out after a surging run from Bale.

Bale caused more chaos with a dipping free-kick that was spilled by Antonis Georgallides towards Neil Taylor, who should have scored from close-range but saw his tame effort blocked by the Cyprus goalkeeper.

Cyprus appealed in vain for a penalty when Nestor Mytidis tumbled in the area after being bundled over by Ashley Williams. After getting the benefit of that decision from referee Szymon Marciniak, Coleman's side thought they had taken the lead in the 27th minute when David Edwards headed home Bale's cross.

But this time the Polish official ruled against Wales as Edwards' effort was disallowed for Hal Robson-Kanu's push. Although Wales were mostly on top, they still lived dangerously at times and Antreas Makris was left unmarked on the edge of the area to drill over. Early in the second half, Marios Nikolaou tested Wales goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey.

But the last time Wales won in Cyprus in 1992, Coleman was playing and the manager proved a lucky charm again as the visitors got back on top.

Ramsey was denied by a fine Georgallides save before Bale finally broke the deadlock in the 82nd minute with a towering header from Taylor's cross to put Wales on the verge of an historic achievement.