Just as it seemed Wales’s hopes of qualifying for the World Cup were in danger of drifting out of sight behind closed doors in Kazan, Gareth Bale completed his hat-trick to supply a winning formula. Two disastrous first-half minutes left Wales with work to do after the break but Bale scored in second-half stoppage time to kill off a stubborn Belarus side that fell to their knees as the ball squeezed in beyond goalkeeper Sergei Chernik.
Things looked rosy for Wales after Bale dispatched a fifth-minute spot-kick, ending his 16-game goalscoring drought for his country, but the momentum flipped when Chris Gunter conceded a penalty approaching the half-hour. Gunter is the most-capped Wales player of all time but was a little naive when an awkward bouncing ball dropped inside the box. Nikolai Zolotov chased Artyom Bykov’s hopeful pass upfield and Gunter was penalised for a high foot, allowing Vitali Lisakovich to hammer in from 12 yards.
Robert Page’s side unravelled from there and 92 seconds later Danny Ward was fishing the ball out of his net again. Rubin Colwill, the Cardiff City teenager asked to lead the line in the absence of club-mate Kieffer Moore, failed to hold the ball on halfway and Belarus turned over possession before splitting Wales’ central defence. Vladislav Klimovich poked a pass through for Lisakovich, who comfortably rolled James Lawrence before powering forward and squaring for Pavel Sedko to slot in under Ward.
Now Wales were flustered, suspect in defence and overpowered and outnumbered in midfield. In truth, Belarus should have increased their advantage before the interval, Lisakovich in particular tormenting the Wales backline. Aleksandr Sachivko stooped to send a header wide after Lawrence was caught the wrong side of his man at a corner and just before half-time Klimovich arrowed a shot inches wide after fooling Ben Davies inside the box.
Wales travelled light to Russia, Uefa’s neutral venue of choice owing to sanctions against the Belarus government, with 13 players absent due to injury, illness and visa ineligibility. Brennan Johnson, one of three players to start both this game and in Finland on Wednesday, played off Colwill on his first competitive start and early in in the second half he forced Chernik into a fine save after roaming into space on the edge of the 18-yard box.
Belarus seemed happy with their lot but came unstuck when Max Ebong clumsily barged into Davies in the box, presenting Bale with a chance to pull Wales level from penalty spot. Bale stunted his run-up and, for the second time, sent Chernik the wrong way. The Wales captain rushed to fetch the ball and then found a priceless winner as the clock ticked towards the final minute of stoppage time, Chernik making a meal of Bale’s shot and letting it squirm past him.