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World Cup: Bale one who shone in pressure play-offs

With nations still battling to reach the World Cup in Qatar the pressure does not get much greater than play-off qualifiers.

(This article was originally published on 25.03.2022)

Thursday night saw four games take place, with Wales' Gareth Bale one of the standout players in the high-pressure clashes

Vintage Bale proves worth

With his time at Real Madrid set to come to an end this summer, Bale showed he's still one of the best in the business as his brace helped Wales to a 2-1 win over Austria.

The 32-year-old has had a rough time of it in the Spanish capital in recent years and there’s been plenty of speculation regarding his next club.

Any would-be admirers will certainly have been impressed with Bale's efforts in what was a massive win for the Welsh, which means they are just one game away from ending a 64-year absence from the World Cup stage.

Bale's two goals on Thursday night were from the top draw, with the first a sublime free-kick into the top-right corner.

The former Tottenham star produced the power, curl and dip needed to score on the slight angle and left the Austrian keeper Heinz Lindner with no chance.

Bale's second also left Lindner with no hope as the ball dropped for the Welsh talisman in the box before he again lashed it home with a venomous strike.

It was a nervy end to the game in Cardiff after Marcel Sabitzer's deflected shot brought Austria back into the contest.

Daniel James squandered a couple of chances to put the game to bed but Wales did manage to hold on for a memorable win.

Now Bale and company will be looking to finish the job when they face either Scotland or Ukraine in their play-off final.

If Bale can produce a similar performance against the Scots or Ukrainians, then Wales will take some stopping to be denied a place at the December showpiece in Qatar.

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In-form Jota strikes again

Another man to shine on Thursday night was Liverpool forward Diogo Jota as he got on the scoresheet once again to help Portugal to a 3-1 win over Turkey.

The former Wolves star has been playing with plenty of confidence this season and has even managed to force his way into being a regular starter at Anfield under Reds boss Jurgen Klopp.

Few would have expected the established front three of Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane to be broken up on Merseyside but Jota has managed to move above Brazilian Firmino in the pecking order.

This time impressing for his country, Jota scored an important goal just before the break to give Portugal a 2-0 lead over the Turks in Porto.

Burak Yilmaz did pull a goal back for the visitors but the win was sealed thanks to a Matheus Nunes goal in the fourth minute of stoppage time at the Estadio do Dragao.

The Portuguese were disappointed not to finish top of their qualifying group, with Serbia, who failed to reach the last European Championships, managing to claim top spot.

Now Fernando Santos' side are having to do it the hard way and Jota looks set to play an important role in helping Portugal reach the World Cup.

Only North Macedonia, after what was a shock win over European champions Italy, stand in the way of the Portuguese and another World Cup appearance.

Portugal are 2/9 to win, 5/1 to draw and 12/1 to lose against North Macedonia when the two teams meet in the play-off final on Tuesday night.

Isak continues to show top quality

There's plenty of hype surrounding Sweden's Alexander Isak at the moment and once again he impressed by helping his country to a 1-0 win over the Czech Republic.

Isak provided the crucial assist for Robin Quaison in extra-time to earn Sweden's spot in the play-off final where they will go head-to-head with Poland.

Sweden are 11/5 to beat the Poles, with the draw available at 2/1. A Poland victory is at 11/8 on Tuesday evening.

The former AIK star Isak has been strongly linked with a move to the Premier League ahead of the summer transfer window, following some impressive performances for club and country.

Isak is currently plying his trade in Spain with Real Sociedad but it looks like the La Liga outfit will have their resolve tested this summer.

At just 22 years old the future certainly looks bright for a player who doesn't appear to be phased by the big occasion.

If Sweden do manage to get past Poland and reach the World Cup in Qatar, then Isak's value has the potential to skyrocket for Sociedad as Isak would be bound to impress at the major tournament.

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