Gareth Bale took Wales within one win of European Championship qualification with a superb headed goal in a 1-0 win over Cyprus in Nicosia.
On a night when the Real Madrid man was frustrated for 80 minutes by a resolute Cyprus defence, he made the difference with a thunderous header that sparked wild celebrations among the travelling Welsh supporters.
Bale’s sixth goal in seven qualifying matches and his 12th in his last 15 internationals decided an end-to-end contest, in which Wales had the better of the chances but struggled to find a cutting edge.
But Bale’s winner ended Wales’ run of two consecutive defeats in Cyprus and left Chris Coleman’s men needing just a win over Israel to clinch their passage to France 2016 – their first major tournament since 1958.
Coleman made three changes to the team that beat Belgium in June, bringing Andy King, David Edwards and Ben Davies in the absence of Joe Allen, Joe Ledley and James Chester, who were all ruled out by injuries.
The game’s first chance came after six minutes when Bale burst over the halfway line and surged towards the box, skipping over a challenge before squaring to Aaron Ramsay, who hooked a shot just too high to test Cyprus goalkeeper Antonis Georgallides.
Cyprus had a chance of their own when Nestoras Mitidis broke into the box after Bale’s stray pass gave the hosts possession, with only a last-ditch Ashley Williams block stopping Mitidis from creating a superb scoring chance from close range.
Just as Cyprus began to get into their stride, Bale picked out Edwards with a cross and the Wolves midfielder thought he had put Wales ahead with a headed goal, but the referee ruled it out for a push by Hal Robson-Kanu as the cross came in.
Cyprus had Konstantinos Laifis to thank for their clean sheet at the break, after the midfielder stopped Bale from going through on goal with a terrific challenge.
Marios Nicolaou gave Wayne Hennessey his first real test of the game early in the second half with a dipping 25-yard drive and the Wales goalkeeper could only parry it out for a corner.
The hard, uneven pitch in Nicosia made it difficult for Bale to run with the ball, and on the occasions he broke away, Cyprus ensured he was faced with a queue of defenders blocking his route to goal.
The attention on Bale allowed Robson-Kanu to lose his marker after 51 minutes, but he lost on in a one-on-one with Georgallides, who cleverly touched the ball out of the Reading striker’s stride without conceding a foul.
Giorgos Economides gave Wales their biggest scare of the evening after an hour, lashing a shot just over the crossbar, and Wales introduced Sam Vokes for Robson-Kanu as Coleman sought to rediscover some of his side’s early momentum, which seemed to be petering out.
But Wales showed their stamina and determination with a late surge of attacks, and Bale connected with Jazz Richards’ superb cross to ensure all three points went to the visitors.
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