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Gareth Bale finds freedom, risk and reward to inspire Wales to famous victory against Turkey

·5-min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

As Gareth Bale sprinted into Turkey’s box, clanging into Zeki Celik’s outstretched leg like an Olympic hurdle, it felt as though he was riding the coattails of his old peak. For an hour in the heat of Baku, he had bent proceedings to his will, his vision wreaking havoc on a toiling Turkish defence, one of several exquisite chips finally punished by Aaron Ramsey to put Wales on the brink of the knockout stages.

But on a night when Wales’ captain once again seemed to rediscover his forgotten love in the national shirt, the recent years of strife replaced by unburdened enthusiasm, he was also left to breathe the largest sigh of relief. This breathtaking, nerve-wracking victory was built on his towering influence, but when his penalty inexplicably sailed over the bar on the hour-mark, causing the game’s momentum to shift like a tidal wave, Wales were plunged into panic and left treading water for a gripping and frantic final passage.

Yet, just as Bale has so often lifted Wales on the back of his own glittering career, his teammates also proved once again that they are far more than a figurehead. They fought with blood and thunder, put their bodies on the line and battled to the final second until Bale’s brilliant pass to Connor Roberts, and a second goal, finally eased the tension. On a night to savour, in a storm Bale created, stirred and subdued, this was a victory that not only encapsulated the might of his inspiration, but the freedom, risk and reward it radiates in a team that continue to defy the odds.

That spirit was clear to see in the celebrations, and a large credit must go to interim manager Robert Page, too. After the slow churn of chances and attacking stasis that encumbered Wales’ draw against Switzerland, he set them up without shackles and went toe-to-toe with Turkey on what was effectively away territory. Perhaps, the baying cacophony of partisan fans in Baku, who willed Turkey forwards and hounded every stutter, was also to Wales’ benefit. Amid the hue and cry, Page’s side were able to write their own rhythm. And whereas Bale and Ramsey were both muted efficiently by Switzerland, here, they were able to play perfect fiddle, a telepathic connection binding them on the pitch, if only it weren’t for the latter’s wasteful finishing.

The finest chance was, perhaps, Ramsey’s first, when Bale picked up the ball by the corner flag, waltzed past a lazy tackle with a familiar skip, and flicked an inch-perfect ball to Ramsey with the outside of his left boot. The Juventus midfielder’s faked shot sent Caglar Soyuncu sliding towards the hoardings, but a trick of the eyes failed to deceive Ugurgan Cakir, who made a terrific low save at his near-post.

The beauty of playing without inhibition, though, is that the well never dries. As the first half wore on, Bale grew evermore into his old shadow, gleaming in Wales’ golden away kit, procuring chances from the dirt. Nominally starting on the wing, he drifted deep into midfield, craving the ball at his feet, from where time seemed to slow around him. If the 31-year-old is still derided as “the golfer” in Madrid, he was able to float pitch shots into space almost at will, with Ramsey’s second chance no less gilt-edged. As Kieffer Moore hustled and harried Turkey’s defenders, Ramsey sprinted beyond them again unmarked. So exquisite was Bale’s pass that, had Ramsey realised the lack of nearby challenge, he would have taken a touch and composed himself, rather than blazing his shot high over the bar in a hurry.

After the breakthrough finally came, with Ramsey cushioning Bale’s magnificent pass on his chest and this time applying a finish for a goal that will surely go down as one of the tournament’s best, Bale’s penalty miss then inevitably led to a landslide of Turkish chances. But for all the freedom Page afford his stars, there was a true discipline, too, that deserves a large share of the credit. Daniel James darted forwards with urgency, his speed making light work of Celik, a Ligue 1-winning full-back in his own right. Joe Morrell cleared off the line. Connor Roberts and Ben Davies hurtled into tackles, their high press forcing Turkey into the central channel, where they were met by the towering blockade of Joe Rodon and Chris Mepham. It’s hardly to say Wales were without weaknesses, with a frailty at set-pieces almost exposed cruelly before Danny Ward made several fine interventions. But just as Bale had lifted the curtain, Wales rose in unison with everything they could muster, every player on the pitch making his own key contribution.

They may not still not be classed as true contenders to lift the crown at Wembley next month, but this was a performance that again captured the hearts and minds, and the highs and lows. Bale’s miss might have left Wales staring into an abyss, but his brilliance had also left Turkey with a mountain to climb. This was not one man’s night - nor is Bale the character to ever make it so - but it was at least another form of personal vindication. And for Wales, it was the just rewards for their bravery. Their greatest star may be ageing, but their spirit and hope has not dimmed at all. In fact, on tonight’s evidence, it’s only getting stronger.

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