Gareth Bale labours in vain as Wales go down to resurgent Croatia

Michael Steele

The winger's early contributions were wasted as Croatia came from behind to critically damage Wales' World Cup hopes with a 2-1 victory.

Spurs' Welsh wizard started off a markedly more energetic performance than his recent offerings playing in behind the striker for the second game in a row. Bale wasn't closely man-marked at all in the early stages of the game and found a lot of space between the lines against an attacking, hard-pressing Croatia side. He announced himself early with a beautiful run six minutes in, evading several defenders before being taken out cycnically by ex-Spur Vedran Corluka, wasting the resultant free kick. Bale's key contribution to the game was then logged in the 20th minute after Joe Ledley was fouled in the penalty area, as he stepped up confidently to bury the spot kick hard and low down the middle to send the home crowd at the Liberty Stadium into raptures.

Throughout the closing stages of the half Bale continued to terrorize Croatia's centre back pairing, though his finishing let him down as he failed to bury a succession of chances. A fingertip save from Stipe Pletikosa was all that separated him from notching up a brace after a nice cutback by Robson-Kanu in the 35th minute gave him a clear sight of goal; Bale then skied a great chance over the bar from a one-on-one after latching onto a lofted through ball and getting behind the defence on 38th minute.

With Croatia switching to a back three and pressing even harder for an equalizer in the second half, Bale had a markedly quieter second half as Wales bunkered down and tried to stem the flow, with the heroics of Boaz Myhill for a long stretch being all that kept his side from surrendering their lead. He drifted increasingly onto the right in attempts to work the channels, winning a free kick in a dangerous area in the 70th minute that was ultimately wasted, and later coming within a whisker of goal cutting in on his right foot in the 79th minute.

As the tie went on, it became increasingly clear that Wales' fragile lead would ultimately prove untenable, and it was no surprise when the evening ended in heartbreak as Lovren and then Eduardo turned the tie on its head and driving Croatia on to a 2-1 victory. Though Bale will share along with the rest of his side the heartbreak of throwing away what will probably prove to be their last chance of reviving their bid to compete in the 2014 World Cup, he can at least seek some consolation in his excellent showing in the first half that initially nudged his country in the direction of a massive upset.

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