Brilliant Bale inspires Wales
Gareth Bale had played just 77 minutes of football across the previous four months. He was not even included in the Real Madrid squad for Sunday’s El Clasico defeat to Barcelona.
But what does match fitness matter when you are capable of producing moments of magic like this?
His opening goal in Wales’ 2-1 win over Austria at the Cardiff City Stadium was described as “the best free-kick I’ve ever seen in my life” by manager Rob Page. His second wasn’t bad either.
Bale’s future remains unclear. The 32-year-old’s Real Madrid contract comes to an end this summer and there is little appetite on either side to extend it. But his performance against Austria was a reminder of just how special he remains.
Bale had made a quiet start to the game when Harry Wilson won a foul 25 yards from the Austria goal midway through the half. But what followed was something close to genius.
His free-kick was perfect, clipping the underside of the crossbar as it exploded into the back of the net, and his second had to be too, given the angle from which it was struck following a corner.
Bale celebrated each one with an outpouring of emotion and while he denied he was sending a message to his critics back in Spain, he made no effort to hide his disgust at his recent treatment in the press. “They should be ashamed of themselves,” he said.
It is certainly a shame how things have transpired in Madrid. In a Wales shirt, though, Bale remains one of the most fearsome players in the international game. He has taken his country one step closer to the World Cup and he is not finished yet.
Italy coming to terms with the unthinkable
That heady night at Wembley, when Italy prevailed against England on penalties in the final of Euro 2020, feels like a distant memory.
Eight months on, the Azzurri became the first reigning European champions in 16 years not to qualify for the following World Cup, after shock Euro 2004 winners Greece missed the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
The rapid and stunning fall from grace was sealed by North Macedonia on a night of high drama in Palermo. Aleksandar Trajkovski’s superb strike came in the second minute of stoppage time, leaving Italy with no time to respond while cementing his place in the history books.
For Italy and Roberto Mancini, the unthinkable prospect of successive World Cup absences – after their no-show at Russia 2018 – is now stark reality, and the ramifications of the inquest into this most shocking of upsets could be wide-ranging.
Amid utter dejection among the Italians, there was jubilation for North Macedonians, who are one victory in Portugal away from qualifying for the World Cup for the very first time.
World Cup play-off Path C was billed as a straight shootout between European champions Italy and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, but North Macedonia had other ideas. The unthinkable happened to Italy, and if Portugal underestimate them, it could happen again next Tuesday.
Let-off for wasteful Portugal
On the face of things Portugal beating Turkey 3-1 looks comfortable, and for large parts it was, but had it not been for Burak Yilmaz’s poor penalty taking it could have been a totally different story.
A free-flowing performance from Portugal in the opening 45 minutes, coupled with a dismal display from Turkey, left the tie feeling all but over at half-time.
Portugal’s star-studded lineup were on song, with Bruno Fernandes and Diogo Jota looking particularly dangerous in the first half on what proved to be another off night for Cristiano Ronaldo.
But they allowed Turkey back into the contest and nearly sacrificed their spot in the World Cup play-off final.
After Yilmaz scored his 31st international goal to halve the deficit, few expected him to miss the target in such spectacular fashion from 12 yards as he skied it well over the bar with just five minutes left to play.
Such was the shock of Yilmaz’s miss, Turkey failed to recover and the fresh legs of Portugal’s substitutes combined – Rafael Leao setting up Matheus Nunes – to seal the win.
Had Yilmaz not been so wasteful, perhaps we would be talking about two upsets in the World Cup play-off semi-finals on Thursday night and focusing on missed chances by Portugal goalscorers Otavio and Jota.
But instead Portugal progress to the play-off final, and play North Macedonia for a place at the World Cup. A fortunate evening for Portugal.
When is the World Cup draw?
By the end of March, we will know 29 of the 32 participants at the first winter World Cup.
The final three places will be decided in the intercontinental play-offs in June as well as the final European play-off final which has been delayed due to the Ukraine-Russia crisis. So, the draw will include Wales and Scotland.
The draw for the tournament takes place on Friday, April 1 at the DECC venue in Doha, Qatar at 4pm GMT.
When and where is the 2022 World Cup?
The 2022 World Cup is taking place in Qatar in the winter months rather than the usual summer ones, due to the heat.
The tournament kicks off on Monday, November 21 at the Al Bayt stadium in Al Khor with a match that will feature the host country.
The final will be played at the Lusail Stadium in Doha a week before Christmas on Sunday December 18.