Majestic Wales come-from behind to shock Belgium and seal Euro 2016 semi-final spot
Together. Stronger. It has been the message; it has been the mantra and it is emblazoned across the hearts of this remarkable Welsh team who have won the most important match in their proud country’s history.
The boys of the 1958 World Cup, who lost in the quarter-finals to Brazil, have been emulated in Wales’s first major finals since then. Wales now go to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 where they will face Portugal in Lyon. The dragons were lions.
That will be billed as Gareth Bale against Cristiano Ronaldo but as brilliant as Britain’s best footballer is Wales are no one-man team. What a testimony to their achievement in defeating what is ranked as the second best team in the world that the wonderful goal came from Hal Robson-Kanu – a modest striker released by Reading and without a club. The third came from Sam Vokes, newly-promoted with Burnley.
The only blemish is that both the outstanding Aaron Ramsey – who played the game of his life - and Ben Davies – not far behind - will be suspended. ‘Land of My Fathers’ rang long and loud. Euro 2016 has left it late but it had lift-off.
It rained. It rained virtually all day – every day it seems in this part of northern France, so close the Belgium border that the predicted 100,000-strong presence of the Red Devils was not unfeasible – but this occasion would not be dampened.
What a noise level as those national anthems were played and the ball was rolled back by Kevin De Bruyne at the kick off - and what a let off in the opening minutes for Wales as Belgium tore into their opponents.
There was a triple block as Romelu Lukaku’s cross skidded through to Yannick Carrasco whose shot was denied by Wayne Hennessey as the goalkeeper spread himself and it struck his midriff. The ball rebounded to Thomas Meunier and his effort was blocked by Neil Taylor and even then it fell to another Belgian, captain Eden Hazard, only for his fierce drive to be deflected over.
Again by Taylor. It was far too open for Wales with a corner then gathering pace off the sodden turf and just evading Lukaku before that space worked to their advantage as Bale collected possession and ran from deep with his shot slamming into the side-netting.
Belgium pushed back with Hazard again drawing wide, again drawing defenders and he turned the ball back to Radja Naingollan. He had space and he had time and he also had a hammer in his right boot as he struck an overwhelmingly powerful shot that tore past Hennessey, brushing his fingers, and into the net. Wales were behind. The Belgians were bouncing.
How would Chris Coleman’s side react? They had not been behind in the tournament so far and it was a test of their resilience and adaptability and although there was the encouragement of facing a makeshift Belgium defence – missing Jan Vertonghen and Thomas Vermaelen as well as Vincent Kompany – they had problems at the back of their own with cautions for Ben Davies, James Chester and Chris Gunter inside 25 minutes meaning they were walking a tightrope.
But just as their frustration grew a chance came with Joe Allen finding Aaron Ramsey who cleverly delayed before picking out Taylor’s late run. The wing-back connected fully but Thibaut Courtois blocked one-handed. It was the kind of opportunity that had to be taken but it also fuelled Welsh hopes. They were now pressing forward. A switch had been flicked.
And then they were level. It came from a corner, superbly executed, with four Wales players standing one behind the other and then breaking forward and back to leave the last one – Ashley Williams – a clear run to stoop and head past Courtois.
Bale was given another run and, again, it spread Belgian panic as Jason Denayer backed off. Space was there but Bale could not gain enough power and Courtois saved.
That corner routine worked a treat. So Wales did it again. And again. First Chester head wide then Williams headed over after a shot from Ramsey skimmed off another Belgium defender and spun wide. The game had been transformed with Wales on top. Belgium’s defence appeared callow, cowed but they had such firepower going forward.
One of those big weapons should have restored Belgium’s advantage – only for Lukaku to direct his header wide when picked out by Meunier before De Bruyne cut inside and curled a left-foot shot narrowly over. A third big gun went close with the ball swept out to Hazard. He cut across Chester and drove an angled shot that just evaded the far post.
As with the start of the first-half Wales were pinned back with Belgium coach Marc Wilmots demanding his team forward to use the attacking strength at their disposal. The Belgian fans reacted with the noise climbing even higher.
They were stunned. Wales broke. Ramsey down the right, from Bale’s pass, and he clipped a cross back which was collected by Hal Robson-Kanu. Taylor was to his left, screaming for it, unmarked, but Robson-Kanu executed the nimblest of Cruyff turns to take out three Belgian defenders and then side-footed beyond Courtois. Incredible. It was also the first time Wales had ventured forward after half-time and the Belgians were shell-shocked.
Substitute Marouane Fellaini – fortunate not to be dismissed for persistent fouling – headed wide when he should have scored. Wales were finding it hard to get forward now. Fatigue had seeped in as well as Belgian necessity to try and save this.
Wales had to find something – and they did. Again down the right with Chris Gunter crossing for substitute Sam Vokes to show the desire and determination to run beyond the hapless Denayer and steer his header across Courtois. It was settled. Wales were in the semi-finals.