Rampant Bale leads by example to put Wales top of group
Wales 3-0 Russia
Published 21/06/2016 | 02:30
Gareth Bale produced a superb performance as Wales scored a famous victory to claim top spot in Group B.
Bale terrified his Russian opponents every time he ran at them with the ball, playing with a zest and aplomb Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic seem to have temporarily mislaid. But what made his performance here so compelling, so masterful, so extraordinary is that his lead was picked up by those around him in red shirts.
Bale may have been brilliant in their midst, but Wales collectively were just that: a collective. Unlike some others in the tournament, this was an 11-man team: five players have now scored in these finals.
And here, from James Chester in the back line, through Aaron Ramsey free-running in midfield to the Pirlo of the Valleys Joe Allen, they played with a conviction that a Russian side who would be pressed to remain in League Two could only watch in forlorn exasperation.
If there was any Western conspiracy behind the Russians' elimination from this tournament it stemmed entirely from west of the Severn Bridge.
Once play got under way, all those throaty choruses of Welsh optimism had immediate legitimacy. And the source of hope was Bale.
Within two minutes, he had done what he does so compellingly for Real Madrid: he cut in from the right wing, drifted forward a few paces and unleashed a bazooka-strength shot that stung Igor Akinfeev's fingers.
It was a lead picked up by Chester, Allen and Ramsey, who combined brilliantly to open the scoring.
By now the Russians must have known what was coming. But doing something about was a very different thing.
Bale was running them ragged. Every time he got the ball, he sought to charge directly at them, scattering them in panic. His pace, his power, his precision left them bereft of clue.
Inevitably Bale set up the second goal. Another smooth, elegant swirl of movement, another bunch of Russian defenders left paralysed with anxiety.
With all attention drawn towards him, Bale executed the sucker punch, a through-ball to the unmarked Neil Taylor. So surprised was the full-back by his freedom of the penalty box, he took two attempts to score.
The master showed him how to do it, his third goal sending Russians in the stadium scurrying for the exit.