Bale’s brilliance moves Wales into World Cup playoff final

CARDIFF, Wales (AP) — Gareth Bale demonstrated his enduring value for Wales by scoring two goals — including a sensational free kick — in a 2-1 win over Austria on Thursday, leaving his country one more victory away from a first World Cup in 64 years.

A peripheral figure at Real Madrid this season, Bale continues to deliver for Wales and his double in the playoff semifinal at Cardiff City Stadium took his record all-time goal tally for the national team to 38.

Surely he hasn’t scored a better one than the 25th-minute free kick with his left foot that soared over the defensive wall and swerved just inside the near post, almost off the underside of the crossbar.

His second strike was of the highest quality, too, as Bale met a low cross into the penalty area with a touch and — while facing away from goal — a rising shot on the turn that flew into the far corner.

Marcel Sabitzer’s 64th-minute effort, which deflected in off the outstretched boot of Wales defender Ben Davies, gave Austria hope but the Welsh held on as they closed in on a second ever appearance at a World Cup, and a first since 1958.

Wales will host either Scotland or Ukraine — the other two teams in Path A of the playoffs — for a place in the tournament in Qatar over November and December. Their semifinal match was postponed until June because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The final is also scheduled for that month.

Bale linked up with his Wales teammates this week having only played around 80 minutes of club football since August.

He was substituted in stoppage time to a standing ovation against Austria.

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