Gareth Bale took to a football pitch for the first time since completing his world-record transfer to Real Madrid, turning out as a second half substitute for Wales in a 3-0 World Cup qualifying defeat to Serbia.
The £85 million man made a lively introduction after 58 minutes, but the game was already settled as a contest, with goals from Filip Djordjevic, Aleksandar Kolarov and Lazar Markovic giving Serbia a comfortable victory at the Cardiff City Stadium.
The visitors took the lead after just eight minutes, when Djordjevic was given a free header only a matter of yards from goal, nodding past the despairing Boaz Myhill.
The unfamiliar defensive partnership between Danny Gabbidon and Ben Davies created a fracture in the Welsh line-up and they were fortunate not to be punished for slack play when Branislav Ivanovic flicked Dusan Tadic’s low drive wide of the target when it appeared set for the net.
Wales continued to struggle with Serbia’s fluid front three and saw the difference doubled when Kolarov smashed a powerful left-footed drive from 25 yards high into the home side’s net.
Sam Vokes, given the start as the lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 system, almost halved the deficit with a cute glancing header, but his effort flashed past the post, and Wales went into the break 2-0 down.
Serbia started the second half just as they had ended the first and found a third goal after 54 minutes, when Markovic finished off at the second attempt following a free-flowing attacking move.
Bale was brought on by Chris Coleman just before the hour mark but despite his positive impact, including a sensational dipping free-kick effort late in the game, Serbia strolled to victory and sent Wales to the foot of Group A.
33’ INJURY – Aaron Ramsey tussled with Ivan Radovanovic and ended up in the advertising hoardings. The impact was a solid one but the Arsenal midfielder was patched up and returned to the action.
38’ GOAL – Aleksandar Kolarov doubled his side’s advantage with a fizzing drive from 25 yards, finding the roof of the net with his left foot.
54’ GOAL – Serbia almost walked the ball into the net as they made it 3-0, with Lazar Markovic eventually turning the ball home after two previous attempts by team-mates.
57’ BALE INTRODUCTION – Gareth Bale took to a football pitch for the first time since making his world record move to Real Madrid, seeing over half an hour of play. His impact was a positive one, lifting his Wales team-mates.
88’ SO CLOSE FOR BALE – The Real Madrid winger almost notched a sensational free-kick from 30 yards, but his dipping effort was tipped over the bar when it looked destined for the net.
TALKING POINT – Have Wales regressed under Chris Coleman? The former Fulham manager took over the Wales team in unfortunate circumstances, but from a football perspective he inherited a young, enthusiastic and above all improving side. Much of that momentum has been lost and Wales sink closer to the foot of Group A.
Wales have played an independent Serbia just twice in history, but have conceded nine goals across those two games.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Lazar Markovic (Serbia): The 19-year-old is rumoured to be an early January-transfer window target for Chelsea and he backed up his burgeoning reputation with an impressive performance. Playing as an inverted winger Markovic proved a constant threat to the Wales goal, capping his display by finding the net in the second half.
Wales: Myhill 4, Gunter 4, Gabbidon 3, Davies 4, Matthews 5, King 4, Bellamy 6, Crofts 4, Ramsey 5, Ledley 4, Vokes 4. Subs – Bale 7, Vaughan 5, Robson-Kanu 4.
Serbia: Stojkovic 5, Ivanovic 6, Bisevac 5, Nastasic 5, Kolarov 7, Radovanovic 5, Djordjevic 7, Fejsa 6, Tadic 7, Markovic 8, Djuricic 6. Subs – Milivojevic 4.
THE MATCH IN A TWEET