So far, so good. Wales claimed their first Euro 2024 qualifying win courtesy of Kieffer Moore’s first-half header. This was Wales’s first game back in Cardiff since their group-stage exit at the World Cup and a sold-out crowd gave Gareth Bale, the most-capped male player and the country’s all-time leading goalscorer, a fitting send-off. The Latvia coach, Dainis Kazakevics, went on the charm offensive in the buildup to the game, talking up Wales’s chances of topping Group D ahead of Croatia, but this display provided little evidence of those credentials.
Fifteen minutes before kick-off Bale bid farewell to the Wales supporters who have adored him since he made his debut for his country in 2006 as a 16-year-old left-back. A visibly choked Bale, who flew in from California for the game, was presented with a commemorative plaque and cap before addressing the Red Wall who serenaded him as he emerged from the tunnel. “I’m going to miss playing in front of you,” Bale said. “It has been the biggest pleasure.”
Bale took in the game from an executive box but rose to his feet to applaud when Moore powered Wales in front with a towering header four minutes before half-time. How they needed the goal, too. Latvia, as the new Wales captain, Aaron Ramsey, had predicted, set up in a low block and proved awkward opposition. Wales had to survive a couple of scares – Arturs Zjuzins and Janis Ikaunieks had first-half shots blocked – but always looked the more likely to open the scoring. Ethan Ampadu saw a shot deflect wide from outside the box and Neco Williams wellied over from distance.
The goal came from a dinked cross by Dan James, who was lively down the left flank. The ball looped towards Moore at the back post and the Bournemouth striker jumped high above Vladislavs Sorokins to bury a header into the bottom corner.
Harry Wilson had had the first chance of the game, forcing the Latvia goalkeeper Pavels Steinbors into an early save after meeting a James cross and Wilson tested Steinbors again before the interval with a shot from distance.
The match was only a few minutes old when Rob Page hared down the touchline after the ball in an attempt to increase his team’s tempo. Page acknowledged the onus would be on his players to find a way past Latvia, ranked 133rd in the world, below both Malawi and the Faroe Islands. It was a contrast to the gameplan they successfully implemented against Croatia in Split last Saturday, where Wales earned a point in stoppage time to kick off their Group D campaign.
Wales did not run away with the game but went close to extending their advantage when Williams again took aim at goal from distance. The Nottingham Forest defender, again playing at left-back, cut inside on to his right foot on the edge of the 18-yard box and lashed a shot towards the top corner. But Steinbors, diving to his left, pushed the ball on to the crossbar and out for a corner with his right hand.
Wilson curled wide a few minutes and, aside from Vladislavs Gutkovskis drilling a shot at Danny Ward’s feet, Wales were comfortable, albeit with only a slender lead.
Page introduced Nathan Broadhead, Wales’s hero in Croatia, in place of James and the Ipswich forward almost set up Joe Rodon with a smart cross but Wales could not add to the scoreline. Oli Cooper arrived for his Wales debut in second-half stoppage time. The marauding Williams sent another shot wide from the edge of the box and Latvia kept pushing for an equaliser but the substitute Renars Varslavans spooned a late chance wide.