CARDIFF (Reuters) – Wales moved clear in second place in World Cup qualifying Group E with a 5-1 home rout of Belarus on Saturday, as Gareth Bale earned his 100th cap for his country.
Aaron Ramsey scored twice for the hosts in Cardiff with Neco Williams, Ben Davies and Connor Roberts also on target as the Welsh boosted their hopes of finishing runners-up behind group winners Belgium who beat Estonia.
Wales are already guaranteed a place in the March playoffs to earn a place in next year’s Qatar finals having won their Nations League section. But finishing second in Group E could give them a better chance of a home draw.
Real Madrid’s Bale, Wales’s all-time top scorer, lasted only the first half of his 100th appearance before being withdrawn.
By that stage Wales were on their way to hitting five or more in a home World Cup qualifier for the first time since 1996.
It took them only two minutes to go in front, as Ben Davies’s crisp volley was parried out by Belarus keeper Syarhey Chernik and Ramsey converted the rebound.
Williams doubled their lead in the 20th minute when he was played in by Bale and embarrassed Chernik with a near-post shot.
Ramsey coolly converted a penalty awarded for handball in the 50th minute to become only the sixth player to score at least 20 goals for Wales, and Davies then bundled in his first, on his 68th appearance for his country.
Artem Kontsevoi scored a late consolation for Belarus with a dipping shot, but Roberts completed the scoring as he touched in a Harry Wilson corner in the last minute.
Wales host Belgium in their final group game on Tuesday trailing the world number one nation by five points but with a three-point lead over third-placed Czech Republic.
A draw will be enough to seal the runners-up spot. The Czechs finish off against Estonia.
Bale, who looked rusty after being out for two months with an injury, received a standing ovation at full time and played down suggestions he had taken another nasty knock.
“I was happy to be back,” Bale said. “It was always the plan to play 45 and come off and try and get ready for Tuesday.”
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Hugh Lawson)