Wales 2-1 Azerbaijan: Bale rescues faltering host late on

Wales just about did enough to beat Azerbaijan on Friday, with Gareth Bale scoring the winner in the 85th minute after a poor showing.

Gareth Bale celebrating for Wales   -  Getty Images

Gareth Bale scored a late winner to keep Wales' Euro 2020 qualification hopes very much alive with a 2-1 triumph over Azerbaijan in Cardiff on Friday.

Ryan Giggs' men looked to be heading for a thoroughly underwhelming stalemate, but Bale – who was otherwise poor – came up trumps six minutes from time to keep them in the hunt in Group E.

Wales was dominant in the first half and played the ball around nicely, though clear-cut chances were hard to come by, with the host having to rely on a freak Pavlo Pashayev own goal to take the lead.

They had similar issues after the break and a costly combination of errors from Neil Taylor and Wayne Hennessey allowed Mahir Emreli to equalise, but Bale - back among the goals at club level with Real Madrid - nodded in towards the end to rescue Giggs' side.

It was by no means a shock when Wales took the lead in the 26th minute, though the manner of the goal was certainly fortuitous, as Bale's long-range effort deflected into the air and was then diverted into the empty net by Pashayev with goalkeeper Salahat Agayev stranded.

That came shortly after Harry Wilson had been lucky to escape a red card, having seemingly stamped on Richard Almeida.

Wales then wasted the chance to go 2-0 up just before the break – Tom Lawrence shooting at the goalkeeper after a Bale dummy released him into the area.

Azerbaijan was back on level terms just before the hour, as Taylor gifted possession to Ramil Sheydaev and he fed Emreli, who slotted home on the rebound after Hennessey haplessly fumbled the initial tame effort right back to the forward.

The visitor looked like it might hang on, but Joe Allen's late strike ricocheted to a nice height for Bale to head over the goalkeeper and seal the victory.

 

What does it mean? Giggs still searching for answer to striker problem

Much has been said of Wales' dearth of striker options. Lawrence was the one filling that role on Friday, but the move did not come off as intended. The attacking midfielder lacked the required conviction in the penalty area and was unable to worry the Azerbaijan defence physically.

James a ray of hope

While most of Wales' forwards flattered to deceive, James transferred his sparkling club form to the international stage. The Manchester United winger was a constant threat with his pace, direct running and desire to shoot.

Bale eventually comes good

To say Bale was the star of the show on Friday would be to tell a bold-faced lie. The Madrid winger saw plenty of the ball, but he routinely had two defenders on him in a flash and he failed to heed the early warnings of that, losing the ball frequently or holding on to it for too long. However, he did hold his nerve at the crucial moment and that will likely spare him from the criticism he might have otherwise received.

What's next?

Wales is at home again on Monday, when it hosts Belarus in a friendly. Azerbaijan welcomes Croatia the same day, though its contest is a qualifier.