Wales are poised to end their 58-year wait to play at a major tournament after Gareth Bale’s late winner on a balmy night in Nicosia.
Bale struck eight minutes from time — his sixth goal in seven games in Euro 2016 qualifying — when he met Jazz Richards’ cross with a thumping header to give Cyprus goalkeeper Antonis Georgallides no chance.
The 1-0 triumph puts Wales within touching distance of a place at next summer’s European Championship in France — a feat that would be confirmed by beating Israel in Cardiff on Sunday night.
But in warm conditions and on a difficult hard surface, it was anything but easy for Wales.
Both sides carried moments of danger in a high-energy start, but it was Wales who had the first opportunity when Bale drew defenders for Aaron Ramsey to fire just over the crossbar
Wales were even closer to taking the lead after 10 minutes when Georgallides made a hash of Bale’s 30-yard free-kick before redeeming himself by blocking Neil Taylor’s follow-up.
Wales breathed a sigh of relief five minutes before the break when Constaninos Charalambidis’ free-kick picked out Andreas Makris, but his rising drive cleared the bar by some distance.
Wales were desperately in need of inspiration and it came after Georgallides had batted away Ramsey’s close-range efffort after Taylor had made inroads down the left. This time it was the right-sided wing-back Richards who was the provider and Bale lost his marker to power home his 18th goal for his country.
Gylfi Sigurdsson’s second-half penalty proved the difference as Iceland beat 10-man Holland 1-0 in Eindhoven to hand new Oranje coach Danny Blind a dismal debut.
Sigurdsson put the visitors ahead six minutes into the second-half after Gregory van der Wiel had brought down Brikir Bjarnason in the area. Holland had suffered an early setback when in the 33rd minute defender Bruno Martins Indi was shown a straight red following a strong challenge on Kolbeinn Sigthorsson. Iceland were unlucky not to double their lead in the 53rd minute when Johan Berg Gudmundsson’s left-footed attempt from 20 yards rattled the left-hand post with Holland goalkeeper Jasper Cillesen beaten.
The outcome has lifted Group A leaders Iceland eight points clear of third-placed Holland with three games remaining.
The Czech Republic, who beat Kazakhstan 2-1, are second in the pool, two points adrift of Iceland and six clear of the Oranje.
Italy moved to the top of Euro 2016 qualifying Group H thanks to a 1-0 victory over Malta in Florence. A goal from Southampton forward Graziano Pelle midway through the second-half was enough for Antonio Conte’s men to move above Croatia at the top of their pool and edge closer to booking their ticket to France next summer.
Malta put up a brave fight at the Stadio Artemio Franchi in going down to their second 1-0 defeat to Italy during this qualifying campaign, with Pelle once again decisive.
Italy finally made the breakthrough in the 69th minute when Antonio Candreva’s cross was turned in from close range by Pelle, who appeared to know little about it as the ball went in off his hip.
Malta went close to equalising through Effiong, who hit the far post, although the offside flag had already been raised. As it was, Pelle’s goal was enough as he followed up his debut strike in the reverse fixture with another goal worth three points.
Israel kept alive their hopes of a top-two finish in Euro Group B with an easy 4-0 victory over rock-bottom Andorra in Haifa.
All four goals were scored in the opening 38 minutes as third-placed Israel stayed within touching distance of pool pacesetters Wales and Belgium, who remained five and two points better off respectively after also picking up wins last night.
Last night’s Euro 2016 qualifiers:
Group A Czech Republic 2 Kazakhstan 1; Netherlands 0 Iceland 1. Turkey 1 Latvia 1. Group B Belgium 3 Bosnia-Herzegovina 1; Cyprus 0 Wales 1; Israel 4 Andorra 0. Group H Azerbaijan 0 Croatia 0; Bulgaria 0 Norway 1; Italy 1 Malta 0.
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