With an expert swish of his left foot, Gareth Bale demonstrated against Northern Ireland that even when he does not shine, he can decide matches for Wales at Euro 2016.
The Real Madrid star, the tournament’s joint-top scorer with three goals, was shackled for much of Saturday’s last 16 game in Paris, mustering a single shot on target with a second-half free-kick.
But with 15 minutes remaining, his wicked, low cross from the left forced Northern Irish defender Gareth McAuley to prod the ball into his own net, sending Wales into a quarter-final against Belgium or Hungary.
“One quality delivery from a world-class player was the difference between the two sides,” said former Wales midfielder Robbie Savage, analysing the game for the BBC.
Bale had more attempts at goal than any other player during the group phase — 18, of which 12 hit the target — but he scarcely had a sight of goal against Michael O’Neill’s impeccably organised Northern Ireland.
Forced to drop deep and pull wide in search of the ball in the first half, he managed only one shot, a mishit attempt that rolled well wide of the right-hand post. That drew cat calls from the green-clad hordes behind Michael McGovern’s goal.
A 25-yard free-kick in the 58th minute gave him an opportunity to net from a dead-ball situation for the third time in the tournament, but McGovern was equal to his dipping effort, plunging to his left to push it away.
However, the introduction of Jonny Williams for Joe Ledley in the 63rd minute gave Wales a new attacking outlet, with defenders flocking towards the Crystal Palace midfielder and thereby leaving gaps elsewhere.
It was in one of these gaps that Bale found himself loitering in the 75th minute as Aaron Ramsey’s pass presented him with the time to measure a cross into the penalty area from the left.
The 26-year-old’s delivery was perfect, bisecting the space between McGovern and his defenders, and with Hal Robson-Kanu loitering at the back post, McAuley felt compelled, fatally, to stick out his foot.
– ‘Special player’ –
“We know with a Gareth Bale on the pitch, that a little bit of brilliance in the space of a second can change your life. We were depending on that today,” said Wales manager Chris Coleman.
“Gareth is clearly a special player. I think for us he’s special, not just because of his talent on the pitch. It’s what he represents when he comes and plays for Wales.
“That’s infectious, that type of attitude and mentality. I think he appreciates what he has around him, his team-mates, and they certainly appreciate that they’ve got a super talent in Gareth, so it’s a good blend.”
Bale was a picture of contentment at the final whistle, scooping his three-year-old daughter, Alba Violet, into his arms and crossing the pitch to salute the Wales fans who were bellowing his name.
Wales are now on course to cross paths in the quarter-finals with Belgium, who are the favourites to progress in their last 16 tie with Hungary in Toulouse on Sunday.
It is not a match-up that would unduly concern Bale, who netted the only goal of the game as Wales claimed a breakthrough victory over Belgium in qualifying on a sultry night in Cardiff in June last year.
He sought to downplay the significance of his involvement against Northern Ireland, but his assessment of the match contained tacit acknowledgement that it was he who had given Wales the edge.
“We had a game-plan. We knew to keep the ball moving and we knew we had that moment of quality in us,” said Bale, the official man of the match.
“Luckily enough we got it and the ball was in the back of the net. That’s all we needed.”