Iwan Roberts column: Bale kick-starts Wales' World Cup campaign

 

An impressive team performance and two goals from Gareth Bale provided Wales and Chris Coleman with a much needed-three points to kick-start the team's World Cup qualifying campaign.

After opening the campaign with two defeats - the latter an embarrassing 6-1 defeat away to Serbia - it had been essential that the players took all three points from their next fixture, which just happened to be the intriguing home nations clash with Scotland in Cardiff.

Much of the focus pre-match had been on the pressure faced by both managers with many critics looking towards Chris Coleman who had yet to win since taking charge of Wales in January.

However, considering the difficult circumstances in which Chris took on the job, after the death of Gary Speed, it is unfair that he has come under such scrutiny so soon into his tenure.

As has been the case in the past couple of internationals, injuries once again robbed Wales of key players. The talismanic Craig Bellamy missed out with a knee injury while Neil Taylor remains a long-term absentee. Add to this the suspension of James Collins and the loss of the two first-choice goalkeepers and it becomes evident that Coleman was presented with quite a selection headache.

Coleman opted to continue with the 4-5-1, a formation that had served Gary Speed's side so well, Gareth Bale starting on the right-hand side and David Vaughan completing a triangle in midfield alongside Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey. The Scots lined up like-for-like, welcoming back integral individuals in the forms of Darren and Steven Fletcher.

Wales manager Chris Coleman

Scotland started the early minutes the brighter, the Welsh defence nervously clearing their lines as the Scottish midfield looked to link up quickly with the in-form Steven Fletcher.

Slowly but surely the Welsh players grew into the half, the midfield trio of Allen, Ramsey, and Vaughan retaining possession brilliantly, creating a number of intricate triangles in the centre of the park. Chances increased as the half went on, Bale most notably turning creator for Steve Morison, who headed the perfectly weighted cross inches wide of the far post from no more than eight yards out.

Fifteen seconds later the ball was in back of the Welsh net, James Morrison racing onto a Steven Fletcher flick on to give Scotland the lead against the run of the play. The goal was the last thing Wales needed, but much to the credit of the lads their heads didn't drop, and they continued to play with fluency and endeavoured to find that breakthrough.

The second half followed much the same pattern as the first, Wales dominating possession but unable to find the all-important goal.

Gareth Bale proved a constant menace cutting in from the right channel whilst two Welsh penalty appeals were turned down, the latter a clear foul by Christophe Berra on the effective substitute Craig Davies.

However, a penalty was awarded in the 80th minute after Bale was clipped from behind by the unlucky Shaun Maloney. The Welsh number 11 picked himself up to coolly send Allan McGregor the wrong way, and offer Wales a much-deserved lifeline.

Bale then proceeded in the dying moments to win the game with a sensational 20-yard left foot strike that left McGregor no chance. It was a special strike from an outstanding talent, raising his tally to nine goals in 37 caps.

Relief and a much-needed boost of confidence came with the final whistle, an indispensable three points just what the Welsh players and Chris Coleman deserved after a tough year all round.

The manager and players move on to a daunting trip to Croatia on Tuesday, but after the character they've shown with this result and performance, they will be full of confidence that they can come away with something from the game.

The Croatian side offers extremely tough opposition, a side that pushed Spain and Italy - the eventual finalists of Euro 2012 - all the way in the summer championships in Poland & Ukraine. They have started the World Cup qualifying campaign just as impressively, picking up two wins and a draw from their opening three games.

The midfield is full of quality with the likes of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic orchestrating attacks, whilst the striking combination of Everton's Nikica Jelavic and Bayern Munich new boy Mario Mandzukic is up there with the finest in European football.

Wales will need to produce another excellent performance if we are to take anything from Osijek.