Friday 21 October 2016

Team spirit helps Bale outshine rival star Hazard

Alan Smith

Published 02/07/2016 | 02:30

Further down the road we were imagining Gareth Bale versus Cristiano Ronaldo in a semi-final, but first the world's most expensive footballer had to win his duel with Eden Hazard.

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This was a blazing, enthralling game between a side whose strength of character was beyond question and another who have been long on promise and short on delivery.

After a torrid first 20 minutes in which Belgium threatened to sweep Wales back to Brexiting Britain, Bale led the fightback and fear gripped every Belgian soul. Were they England in disguise?

Read more: Majestic Wales come-from behind to shock Belgium and seal Euro 2016 semi-final spot

Rarely will you see a clearer division between big name talent (or potential, in Belgium's case) and cleverly cultivated team spirit.

Which is not to say Wales were all dragons and defiance. They played some marvellous football after the early Belgian onslaught, snatching back possession of the ball and shaping their attacks smartly.

Bale unleashed a nice blend of threats, drifting across the pitch in a playmaking role but also hurting Belgium with sudden direct bursts that unsettled a revamped back-four and forced Thibaut Courtois, in the Belgian goal, onto full alert.

Individual talent, team character: this was a night to observe the power of each.

And a salient point about Bale's contribution to the drama is that he has fewer top-class team-mates to conspire with.

For Hazard, on the other hand, accomplices were everywhere: Manchester City's Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku of Everton and Radja Nainggolan, whose shot past Wayne Hennessy on 12 minutes might have been fired from a crossbow.

Yet who should step into this unbalanced picture but Hal Robson-Kanu, whose turn inside the Belgium penalty area not only almost sent Marouane Fellaini into the car park, such was the skill of his turn, but also gave Wales the lead.

On the bench, the cameras picked out the injured Jan Vertonghen making unflattering comments about Belgium's defence, who had also twice allowed Ashley Williams clear headers from corner-kicks (the first one brought Wales' equaliser).

Phil Bennett himself would have been proud of Robson-Kanu's footwork and powers of deception.

Read more: 'Dare to dream' - The best Twitter reaction to Wales's stunning victory over Wales

After the ground-out win over Northern Ireland, several Wales players expressed a lack of fear of Belgium, who they had beaten in qualifying.

At no point in this game where they daunted by the so-called golden generation arrayed against them.

In fact so panicky were Belgium that they sent on Fellaini to clatter into Bale.

On this night, just over the border from Belgium with cold rain sheeting down, Wales might have been sent to test the Belgian claim to be the coming force in European football (we have been hearing that for a while now).

But Wales were also in the Stade Pierre Mauroy to move to a level they have never reached before: to discover how good the team of Bale and Aaron Ramsey can be, with such able support from the unified bunch around them.

Bale has been a man transformed at this tournament. Gone is the shy, platitudinous distraction-phobic megastar we know at Real Madrid.

With a little prompting from Chris Coleman and the Wales coaching staff, the national megastar has stepped up to become the voice as well as the talisman of the country's most successful team since 1958.

"The dragon on my shirt, that's all I need," Bale announced on the eve of the game - then repeated it with a tweeted picture of himself banging his fist on the Wales crest, with jawline raised.

Read more: Bullish Bale throws down gauntlet with Belgium mind-games

Bale is simply not like this at Real Madrid, where he walks in Ronaldo's shadow - politically, though increasingly less so as a player - and leaves the fire-starting to others.

There he was again on the eve of this match addressing the country back home with an almost presidential address.

With a now familiar glint in his eye, Bale urged the public "to enjoy the experience as a nation" and called on those in Lille to match the Belgians who flooded south into France decibel for decibel.

There is no harm in boiling a game between nations into a battle between the two best players. Heaven knows this fitful tournament needs sub-plots.

And nobody could deny the excitement generated by Bale and Hazard at their best. Both are forceful, darting runners who can blast a hole in a defence and finish brutally.

Bale won the battle of the previews. Even Jordan Lukaku, the younger brother of Romelu, said: "Bale is for me perhaps slightly higher than Hazard. He's been playing longer at that level.

"At key moments at club level Bale is the man and he stands there, while Hazard is still not consistent."

Hazard himself went along with it, saying: "He (Bale) is a special player. I am not a special player. He plays for one of the best clubs in the world."

Chelsea will have loved that.

Maybe Jordan Lukaku's comment was a call to Hazard to fulfill his talent for the good of all Belgians. He was certainly trying, prior to this quarter-final.

Hazard had made 181 successful passes to Bale's 79 - with a completion rate of 88pc to Bale's 68pc.

He also led on chances created, by 15 to three, and was superb against Hungary.

But this game turned out to be so much more than a contest between two global brands.

The beauty, for Wales fans, is that they saw their team pass from being underdogs on a magical journey to authentic tournament knock-out side. Not that this is the main point, but they were a lesson to England. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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