This is the best Welsh football team ever. Wales made the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 1958, but for the first time in the country’s history they are in the semi-final of a major tournament. The Euro 2016 quarter-final always looked like being the final frontier for Wales – they have sprinted through that barrier.
While they have one truly outstanding player in Gareth Bale, the rest of the team are organised and passionate, but in making a European Championship quarter-final they were very much of the cusp of the limits of what they could achieve. They have exceeded every expectation that they and their supporters had when they made it to the finals. This team, this squad, will all be remembered for generations to come as being the greatest.
Wales have long been overshadowed in every sense, both footballing and not, but England, their more populous neighbour at this tournament, are long gone and the Welsh will take on Portugal for a spot in the final of the Euros. They haven’t got there through luck or results going their way, they are one of the best four teams in the tournament.
The Welsh journey here has been built on a foundation of extremely solid defence and the ability to counter-attack. In the opening moments against Belgium, their defenders were quickly overrun and they rarely regained possession quickly enough to counter.
For the first half an hour of the game Wales were mostly passive participants as Belgium took complete control. The Belgians could well have gone in front in the seventh minute when the ball ricocheted around the Welsh penalty area. First Yannick Carrasco hammered a shot that was well saved by Wayne Hennessy, another shot from Thomas Meunier was well blocked by Neil Taylor. It wasn’t over yet for Wales, the rebound from Meunier’s shot fell into the path of Eden Hazard who had his attempt deflected over the bar.
For a long time now people have spoken of this young and exciting Belgium side achieving something on the world stage, and in that first 30 minutes of this game they looked to be set to do just that. They are the youngest starting eleven at a European Championships in almost 50 years but they showed real maturity and deserved their lead when they took it in the 12th minute.
Joe Allen has been one of the areas of solidity for Wales so far this tournament it was a surprise when a loose ball from him that gave possession to the Belgians on the right wing. Carrasco swung it across to the left wing and at the feet of Hazard. The ball had the advantage of stretching the Welsh defence and they sat back long enough to allow Radja Nainggolan the space to unfurl a brilliant shot from 30 yards out that flew into the top left hand corner of the net.
It could have be 2-0 or even 3-0 over the next 15 minutes as the Welsh were regularly stretched, but there was nearly a second goal of the tournament from Neil Taylor that would have levelled the game when he ran onto a ball from Ramsay. He was unmarked and should have done better but as we have learnt in this tournament already, Taylor is more an accidental than he is a natural goal-scorer.
Wales were beginning to look more assured, but the goal came as something of a surprise. A corner was brilliantly placed, but the Belgians were attracted to Bale like moths to a porch light, three defenders covering the Real Madrid forward and leaving Ashley Williams completely unmarked. He headed home with ease.
The second half of the first half was a much more even contest and the last 15 minutes of the first period were all about Wales. At half time, Belgium were concerned enough to bring on Marouane Fellaini in the place of Carrasco in the hope of winning the midfield battle. It worked, with Belgium all over Wales in the opening exchanges of the second half.
But it was Wales that went in front and the goal came from Hal Robson-Kanu. He doesn’t have a club at the moment but he will not be short of offers. That man Ramsay supplied the pass and while Robson-Kanu has the clumsiest first touch in football he is so strong that he often makes up for it. Here he managed to make a mess of controlling the ball on the penalty spot, he then did a pirouette that left three defenders clueless as what was happening and drove the ball past Thibaut Courtois. It was an outrageous piece of skill from the unlikeliest of sources and is a challenger for goal of the tournament.
Wales wrested the control back from Belgium and looked to score a third that could kill of the game, but it wasn’t long before the Welsh were under the pump again. Belgium had a very good penalty shot turned down and Fellaini missed a free header on goal which looked easier to score than not.
As long as it was 2-1 the nerves were evident, but Sam Vokes put the game beyond doubt. Belgium were pushing for the win and he headed in a third. The game was over Wales had won.
The next match will be against Portugal, a team that have been more rancid than remarkable so far this tournament. The Portuguese have yet to win a match inside 90 minutes. Wales have won four times in normal time and are now the leading scorers in Euro 2016. They go into that game not as favourites but at least as equals.
They will be without Aaron Ramsay and Ben Davies who are suspended thanks to yellow cards here, but the showdown between the Real Madrid superstars that will take place with Bale takes on Cristiano Ronaldo. It could be mouthwatering and in Wales it will be close to a public holiday.
First Published On : Jul 2, 2016 09:03 IST