GARETH Bale saved manager Ryan Giggs from a major embarrassment and kept alive Wales’ faint hope of qualifying for Euro 2020 with a winner five minutes from time against lowly Azerbaijan at the Cardiff City Stadium.

Ryan Giggs’ men were gifted the lead thanks to a calamitous own goal in the first half but mistakes from Neil Taylor and Wayne Hennessey allowed the visitors to draw level.

It looked like the team ranked 109th in the world would take a point home with them, but Bale came to the rescue with a header in the 85th minute.

It was his first goal for his country since November 2018 and it gives Wales and Giggs some breathing space after back-to-back defeats in June in Croatia and Hungary.

Giggs made five changes from the defeat in Budapest with Harry Wilson replacing the injured David Brooks and a whole new back four drafted in.

Out went Newport’s Chris Gunter, captain Ashley Williams, fellow centre-back James Lawrence and left-back Ben Davies.

And in came Connor Roberts, debutant Joe Rodon, fellow centre-back Chris Mepham and left-back Taylor.

But the Wales back line had little to do in the first 45 minutes against a visiting side that came to frustrate.

The action was almost exclusively at the other end but it took a calamitous own goal to break the deadlock in a first half when Giggs’ men struggled to crack the Azerbaijan defence.

Rodon got on the end of an early Wilson free-kick but couldn’t divert the high ball towards goal with an awkward volley.

Bale then beat three men on the right and crossed for Tom Lawrence to hook a volley wide.

But, after that flurry of activity, Wales quickly grew frustrated and Wilson was lucky to stay on the pitch after a stupid stamp on Richard Almeida and a dive in the Azerbaijan box.

The goal arrived in fortuitous circumstances in the 26th minute.

Bale’s shot was blocked by Dmitri Nazarov only to loop up into the air and strike Pavlo Pashayev, who was looking the other way, in the side of the head.

Goalkeeper Salahat Agayev, who had rushed out of his goal, was completely wrong-footed and could only watch the ball roll past him and into the unguarded net.

South Wales Argus:

That should have been the signal for the floodgates to open, but Wales continued to labour.

Manchester United star Daniel James saw a shot blocked in the 41st minute, but the hosts’ first shot on target didn’t arrive until first-half stoppage time when Lawrence turned his man smartly in the box but fired straight at Agayev.

The second half continued at a leisurely pace until Azerbaijan capitalised on two mistakes to score a shock equaliser just before the hour mark.

Taylor gave the ball away just inside the visitors’ half, allowing Ramil Sheydaev to release Mahir Emreli through the middle.

His weak shot was straight at Wayne Hennessey but the Wales goalkeeper could only parry it back to him and the striker scored at the second attempt to stun the home fans into silence.

They didn’t stay quiet for long, however, as their frustration quickly became apparent.

Giggs threw on Jonny Williams in place of the ineffective Wilson and James saw a shot deflected wide from the edge of the area.

The Red Wall tried to rouse their heroes with a rendition of the national anthem and Sam Vokes replaced Ethan Ampadu for the final 15 minutes.

It didn’t look like a winner was coming but, as he has so often in the past, Bale bailed out Wales.

Joe Allen’s shot was blocked by Maksim Medvedev and the Real Madrid man climbed high to head home and keep everyone dreaming of a repeat of that remarkable summer in 2016.

Wales: Hennessey; Roberts, Rodon, Mepham, Taylor (Davies, 80); Allen, Ampadu (Ampadu, 75); Bale, Wilson (J. Williams, 63), James; T. Lawrence

Subs not used: Ward, A. Davies, Gunter, Smith, Moore, J. Lawrence, Lockyer, Morrell, Vaulks

Booked: Mepham

Referee: Trustin Farrugia Cann (Malta)

Attendance: 28,385

Argus star man: Bale