Gareth Bale sent Wales striding towards a first major tournament appearance since 1958 as they beat heavyweights Belgium 1-0 in a 2016 European Championship qualifier in Cardiff on Friday.
On a raucous, muggy night in the Welsh capital, Bale capitalised on an error by Radja Nainggolan in the 25th minute to mark his 50th cap with a goal that took Chris Coleman’s men five points clear of Belgium in Group B.
They are also, crucially, five points above third-place Israel with four games to play and with only the top two teams certain to qualify, their 57-year wait since the 1958 World Cup is tantalisingly close to ending.
By beating Belgium, currently second in the FIFA rankings, Wales are also thought to have played their way into the top pool of seeds for next month’s qualifying draw for the 2018 World Cup, giving their fans yet more reason to feel dizzy as they poured out into the Cardiff night.
They will resume their qualifying campaign with a double-header away to Cyprus and at home to Israel in September, while Belgium, beaten for the first time since losing to Argentina in last year’s World Cup quarter-finals, host Bosnia-Hercegovina and visit Cyprus.
Not since the Euro 2004 qualifiers have Wales threatened to reach a major tournament and while a full house of 33,280 at the Cardiff City Stadium delivered a crackling atmosphere, a slick pitch doused by light drizzle made for a frantic start to the game.
As Belgium coach Marc Wilmots had predicted, Wales sat deep, with Jazz Richards and James Chester coming into a five-man defence in place of injured pair James Collins and Ben Davies.
Injury deprived Belgium of Marouane Fellaini, scorer of two goals in last weekend’s 4-3 friendly win against France, but his unavailability allowed Kevin De Bruyne to line up alongside Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens in an attacking midfield band that seemed in perpetual motion.
– Nainggolan mistake –
The early chances were all Belgium’s, with a cross from Mertens narrowly eluding Christian Benteke, Wayne Hennessey getting down sharply to parry a curling effort from Nainggolan and Hazard lashing over.
Short of an off-target header from Hal Robson-Kanu, Wales had shown nothing as an attacking force, but in the 25th minute Nainggolan’s error allowed them to strike.
Aaron Ramsey’s free-kick was only partially cleared and in attempting to head the ball back to goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, Nainggolan sent it straight to Bale, who had time to chest down and turn before tucking the ball between Courtois’s legs for his 11th Wales goal in 15 games.
Joe Allen was booked for upending Hazard, ruling him out of the trip to Cyprus, but Jan Vertonghen’s ensuing free-kick was deflected wide and minutes later Wales almost doubled their lead.
After playing a one-two with Robson-Kanu, Ramsey saw his low shot blocked by Courtois and although Toby Alderweireld’s panicked clearance went straight to Robson-Kanu, he could only prod wide of the empty goal.
Belgium made their intentions clear by sending on Romelu Lukaku for Mertens at half-time and shifting to a 4-4-2 system, and the Welsh goal was quickly besieged.
Within a minute of the restart, Benteke had volleyed over from a corner, while Chris Gunter kneed the ball over his own bar, De Bruyne and Alderweireld shot wide and Ashley Williams blocked from Hazard.
Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco also entered the fray for Belgium, but as the minutes ticked by and the rain intensified, so their composure deserted them and the Welsh defence, roared on by anxious home fans, held firm.