Sometimes the team with the best player wins. There can be moans about refereeing decisions, groans about missed chances and animated discussions about tactics. But it was all reduced to one realisation in the Cardiff City Stadium last night: Gareth Bale was the best player on the park by a distance similar to that now stretching between Scotland and Rio de Janeiro.
Bale dragged Wales to victory with the aid of a fall in the box and a shot of wonderful certainty. He will be castigated in some quarters for his collapse for the penalty and lauded by every neutral observer for the brilliance of his finish for the winner. There will be arguments about the strength the Shaun Maloney challenge that led to Welsh winger's fall. Any controversy can not be allowed to drown out an irrefutable assertion: Bale was not only the most outstanding, the most accomplished player on the pitch, he merely played to expectations of him.
There was a moment in the second half when he sped away from Danny Fox that one might have called for social workers to intervene, such was the Tottenham Hotspur player's wilful abuse of the Southampton left-back. His treatment of Fox, with a further allusion to the playground, amounted to bullying. At times, he eschewed any hint of subtlety. He would just take the ball and charge past the left-back and anyone in the same postcode. At the end of the match, he didn't just swap shirts with Fox, he took his dinner money.
Scotland could justifiably girn about a soft penalty and a strangely disallowed goal. They also missed a clutch of chances. But Bale almost single-handedly rendered these details doubly painful. It may seem absurd to say it, but he won this match on his own. At some point, he must have decided it was not profitable to pass to his team-mates. A check inside and a curling shot that sneaked past the post in the first half should have given him the impetus simply to play Scotland without any help from anyone in a red shirt.
Yet he persisted in supplying excellent balls to his mates. These were rewarded with the sort of finishing that would be derided in a nursery. Aaron Ramsey scuffed one delightful cross wide and Steve Morison not only missed dreadfully with a header but consequently played a part in the build-up to the Scotland goal. The nod from the Norwich City striker was carefully placed outside the post and Allan McGregor's bye-kick was headed on by Steven Fletcher for another Morrison, James of that ilk, to plant the ball in the net.
Morrison then missed when Fletcher's curiously restored thatch set him up for another chance, the Sunderland striker miscued from eight yards out, and in the second half netted from close in but the cross from Charlie Adam was wrongly adjudged to have gone out of play.
Instead of leading 2-0, Scotland were therefore playing the might of Bale with a single-goal advantage. This was nullified when the winger went down under the challenge of that noted hammer thrower Maloney and the match was subsequently won when the Tottenham player was allowed to shoot from distance with his left foot with the inevitable, painful result.
The rest was familiar for Tartan Army veterans. The futile charges at goal, the sclaffed headers, the crosses that just evaded the waiting striker, the wrong choices made, the desperation mounting, the frustration continuing. And it was raining, too. Afterwards, Craig Levein was understandably disconsolate, even distraught, at the decision not to award a goal to Fletcher in the second half. The Scotland manager, who had played with such dreadful, debilitating caution in Prague, had become a maverick who gambled in Cardiff.
Fletcher, restored with some grace by Levein, repaid his manager by setting up the first goal and looking lively and occasionally dangerous. He was supported by Maloney, Morrison and Kris Commons, who all tried to push Wales into a position from which even Bale could not extricate them. But the strategy failed.
In hindsight, Levein may be ruing his failure to deploy a more defensive player in front of Fox. Would, for example, Charlie Mulgrew been a better option than Maloney? Would the Celtic full-back have cut across the back of the rampaging Spurs player in the box? Would a note of caution have been a prelude to a tune of glory? It is impossible to say, though Levein may smile ruefully at the accusations of almost reckless adventure that he may now face.
He will face more pressing questions as Tuesday's visit to Belgium takes on the aspect of a wake where grief is not addressed but exacerbated. The road to Rio has hit a dead end. Levein's reputation is the most grievous casualty, yet he enjoys considerable support within the Scottish Football Association.
The Scottish tale of woe includes elements of incompetence by officials, though they did miss a penalty that should have been awarded to Wales, and bad fortune. But the difference was Bale. This mild-mannered young man employed the politics of the playground. Not only did he beat Scotland, he beat Scotland up.
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