Bale unable to prevent Wales slipping to heavy Serbia defeat
Goals from Filip Djordjevic, Aleksandar Kolarov and Lazar Markovic put the game well beyond Wales, who never looked like avenging the 6-1 mauling they suffered at the hands of the same opponents in Novi Sad a year ago.
Bale, a pre-match doubt due to a groin problem, appeared just before the hour to get his first action since joining Real Madrid to become the world's most expensive player.
He almost scored a wonderful late free-kick, which was about as good as it got for the hosts.
There were some typical surging runs and fierce efforts on goal from the former Tottenham forward, suggesting he should be able to make a debut for his new club at Villarreal on Saturday, but his arrival with the scoring already completed meant a remarkable turnaround was too much even for the 100million euro man.
Chris Coleman has stressed the importance of finishing third in this group in order to secure a better seeding for Euro 2016 qualification, but Scotland's win in Macedonia sent Wales plunging to the bottom of the section on goal difference, and they were booed off at full-time.
Wales had been cruelly hit by injury and suspension and this was always likely to be a stern test but, in all honesty, this was over as a contest from the moment Serbia took an early lead.
Inside three minutes a poor touch from Andrew Crofts gifted the Serbs the ball on the edge of the Welsh box, but Markovic spooned an effort wastefully wide.
But there was no reprieve in the eighth minute as Wales fell behind.
Kolarov whipped in a cross from the left, after Crofts had played him onside, which Filip Djuricic headed straight at Boaz Myhill, but Djordjevic headed in the rebound with no Wales defender in sight.
Dusan Tadic could have made matters worse for Wales had he not driven his shot straight at Markovic when left unmarked at a corner, while Branislav Ivanovic put a free header well wide from a Kolarov corner.
But they were soon on the defensive again as another Crofts error gave Ljubomir Fejsa a sight of goal only for Myhill to save, but the goalkeeper then stood no chance when Kolarov deposited an unstoppable drive into the top corner to double the visitors' lead.
Welsh woes were compounded when Sam Vokes headed inches wide from close range.
They then fell 3-0 behind 10 minutes into the second half. An overworked Myhill superbly saved Kolarov's shot, but no-one reacted quickly enough to prevent Markovic putting away the rebound.
Boos rang out around the Cardiff City Stadium and Coleman, perhaps sensing the mood, quickly readied Bale, who came on in place of Vokes for his first action since becoming the world's most expensive player.
He quickly had two shots on goal, with Stojkovic beating away one fierce drive and Bale putting the rebound wide.
During a meandering final quarter Bale was the only real point of interest.
One lovely, balanced run was halted as he went down, and was ordered to his feet by the referee.
Bale then almost scored with a sensational swerving and dipping free-kick which Stojkovic just about tipped over.