THE MIRACLE of Wales.
That’s what the Spanish media called it when Gareth Bale was spotted training with his country less than 48 hours after missing the Classico.
Maybe they left too soon.
Because despite playing just 77 minutes of club football since November, the Real Madrid man scored two stunning goals for his beloved Dragons.
Who is writing the former Tottenham man’s screenplays?
Even by his standards, it was incredible stuff from the captain and talisman to bring his nation to the brink of a first World Cup in 64 years.
They still have a step to go – but Rob Page’s men will take part in the draw when it takes place in Doha next Friday.
And with Bale at their side, who’s to bet they’ll secure their place when they face Scotland or Ukraine in the summer?
Once again he was her man for the big occasion on an electrifying night in the capital.
And what an ovation he got as he delved deep into injury time with a job he was all but done – and how well deserved he was.
Wales were unbeaten in their last three meetings with Austria – and had not lost to anyone in Cardiff in 16 games.
No wonder the Dragons were judging their chances – despite facing such experienced opponents.
They nearly got off to a dream start when Connor Roberts knocked out David Alaba and the ball fell to Dan James, whose shot went too close to Heinz Lindner.
On the other hand, however, they were almost caught when a super through ball from Marcel Sabitzer opened up the home defense.
Christoph Baumgartner cleaned but made his shot early and punched Wayne Hennessey but rebounded off the bar.
What a disappointment for the home side – and they almost took full advantage when James turned up a cross from the left that narrowly avoided the onrushing Aaron Ramsey at the back post.
Wales last qualified for the World Cup finals in 1958 – at that time also via the playoffs.
But there was no sign of the nervousness of Page’s men.
It was the guests who seemed insecure – including Alaba, who must have believed he had seen everything during his time at Bayern Munich and Real.
A cross from Liverpool’s Neco Williams found Ramsey’s head but he couldn’t quite deflect it on target.
Baumgartner then stuck out an arm midway through the first half to stop Harry Wilson from charging past him and received a yellow card.
More importantly, however, it gave Wales a free-kick from 25 yards out – in a position that looked perfect to you-know-who.
Flaring his cheeks, he ran four paces up and then floated over the wall and off the underside of the bar with a perfect knuckle-ball free kick.
What a goal and what a moment.
His 37th goal for his country – and his first from a free-kick since beating England’s Joe Hart in the group stage of Euro 2016.
That’s now four goals and three assists in the current qualifiers – where would they be without him?
Wales were almost caught when Alaba’s free-kick was smashed straight into Ben Davies by Hennessey – but luckily the rebound went wide.
And at the other end, the home side were so close to extending their lead when a great pressing from James saw Wilson Ramsey go berserk.
The Rangers man on loan took a touch before delivering a shot which was excellently tipped around the post by Lindner.
What a boost would have been a second goal at half-time – especially as Page’s men got off to a sloppy start to the second half.
Former Stoke man Marko Arnautovic saw a header conveniently saved by Hennessey.
But more pressing saw James secure a corner for his team and then send a dangerous ball into the box from the left.
Davies got there first but his old Spurs pal Bale did the rest, taking a touch before sending a fierce drive over Lindner and into the far corner.
He clinched the hat trick just after the hour mark when he sped off to the right, but his power shot just inches over the bar.
That would have settled it, but instead Austria came back into play less than a minute later when Sabitzer’s tame shot from outside the box would have been aimed squarely at Hennessey.
However, it took a terrible distraction from Davies and a loop over the Burnley keeper – a really soft one for the visitors.
Again Wales had a chance to seal it when a glorious ball from Ramsey put James in play but Lindner came down well to save from the Leeds man.
And he was slotted in again by Harry Wilson a few minutes later, but this time he was denied by a final defense against Xavier Schlager.
The Dragons seemed intent on doing it the hard way, but they held on to seal a famous victory – and now they’re within reach.
https://www.thesun.co.uk/sport/18058944/gareth-bale-wales-world-cup-real-madrid/ Watch Gareth Bale’s stunning free-kick as the hero’s doppelganger fires Dragons one step short of the World Cup