World Cup 2018: Wales need Bale blockbuster as cup hopes hang in the balance

Gareth Bale holds the key to Wales' chances of qualifying for a first World Cup in 60 years.

Wales need Gareth Bale to take centre stage once more if they are to produce a stunning sequel to their Euro 2016 heroics and reach the World Cup.

The remarkable story of Wales' march to the semi-finals hit the big screen earlier this month, offering a timely reminder of  what Chris Coleman's men are capable of as their hopes of automatic qualification hang in the balance.

Don't Take Me Home – the documentary by filmmaker Jonny Owen that received its general release in cinemas on March 1, St David's Day – charts the team's journey from the tragic death of manager Gary Speed in 2011 to the climax of their surprise run to the last four in France last year, where they were beaten 2-0 by Cristiano Ronaldo's eventual champions Portugal.

The film ends with the team's homecoming on the streets of Cardiff – Bale's home city – and a sense of optimism that Wales could reach the 2018 World Cup, returning to the tournament for the first time in 60 years.

But the road to Russia has not gone entirely to script for Bale and Co. so far, and a trip to Dublin to face Group D leaders Republic of Ireland on Friday is pivotal to their qualification ambitions.

A 4-0 victory over Moldova in Cardiff was followed by a creditable 2-2 result in Austria. However, home draws against Georgia and Serbia have left Wales four points adrift of Ireland and in danger of falling a daunting seven behind at the Aviva Stadium.

Wales have a squad capable of topping a group that features none of European football's big hitters, but the importance of Bale to their chances of living up to unprecedented expectations is difficult to underestimate.

Seven goals in Euro 2016 qualifying, three in France and four from as many matches so far in this campaign - Bale has had a hand in 53.1 per cent of Wales' goals since they set out on their Euros journey back in September 2014.

Indeed, Bale, who spent three months out with an ankle injury between November and February, is closing in on Ian Rush's Welsh goalscoring record of 28 - a hat-trick on Friday would see him surpass that marker.

Aaron Ramsey and Hal Robson-Kanu are the next top scorers over the same period with just three apiece, playing a part in 28.1 and 12.5 per cent of goals respectively.

Compare that to Madrid, where Bale (20 per cent) has shared the load with a supporting cast of Ronaldo (45.1 per cent) and Karim Benzema (22.7 per cent) in the same timeframe, and the additional responsibility on the former's shoulders on international duty comes into sharp focus.

But it is a role Bale has taken on with relish over recent years and, while some may suggest Coleman's side are a one-man team, it is more accurately a golden generation enhanced by the presence of a man who, for Wales, is a once-in-a-lifetime player.

And if they are to embark on another adventure worthy of the silver screen, it seems likely Bale will be the man to prevent the credits from rolling prematurely.

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