Inspirational Wales expose Belgian flaws and enter dreamland
Wales 3-1 Belgium
This was the night where a golden generation was devalued by a great team in the truest sense of the word.
Wales were magnificent, rising above the sum of their parts to show they are much more than a one-man operation.
Their unity defined a memorable occasion in Lille, a game of the tournament contender which exposed a Belgian side lacking in real substance.
Two weeks ago, after the win over Ireland that was supposed to represent the turning of a corner after a build-up dominated by talk of mutiny and leaks in the camp, Marc Wilmots said that people who criticise will never have a good life.
He won’t enjoy his life in the aftermath of a dismal failure that culminated with aimless punts in the direction of Marouane Fellaini. With a squad that cost in excess of £300m that is a grim state of affairs. “I’m not a magician,” he claimed in a tense press conference where he blamed inexperience and said he would take time to consider his future.
They were outpointed by a Welsh operation signed by their current employers for a combined transfer fee of £125m, the lion’s share of which came from Gareth Bale’s move to Real Madrid. He was brilliant, but the fact this game turned on a moment of skill from Hal Robson-Kanu – a player released by Reading at the end of the Championship season – summed up the fairytale nature of the Welsh story.
Chris Coleman’s charges move on to a semi-final with Portugal in Lyon on Wednesday and, on the evidence of this display, they will be dreaming of better. Bans that rule Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies out of that match were the only downer.
On the eve of the game, Coleman had spoken of his regret that his father Patrick Joseph Coleman – a Dubliner who emigrated to Swansea as a teenager – had not lived to see his son succeed on this stage.
He had thought about quitting the post in 2012 after a heavy 6-1 loss in Serbia and subsequently explained that his father’s words inspired him to stay on and fight.
“He said that if you lose, you’ve got to be walking forward throwing punches back,” he explained. “Not on your hands and knees crawling away getting kicked in the backside.”
There was a period in the first half where it seemed as though Wales were going to end up slumped on the ropes. Belgium burst out like they were ready to live up to the hype.
The Welsh goal had already lived a charmed life, surviving a frantic scramble featuring shots from Yannick Carrasco, Thomas Meunier and Eden Hazard, when they fell behind to a strike of genuine beauty.
A crossfield pass from the otherwise excellent Joe Allen was underclubbed and Belgium advanced up the park with crisp passing that reclassified Welsh players as spectators. They were still watching when Radja Naingglolan sized up a 25-yarder that arrowed into the top corner.
Thirteen minutes had elapsed. It looked as though Coleman’s charges were in for a long night.
Instead, they made it a memorable one by bouncing back together and stronger, the mantra that has defined their meteoric rise.
Unsurprisingly, Bale was at the heart of it, with a patched-up Belgian back four paralysed by fear when he galloped in their direction.
The strong-running Robson-Kanu caused problems with his pace and forced the first of a pair of corners that concluded with an Aaron Ramsey delivery and a superb equaliser from the head of Ashley Williams.
Wales were a step ahead. That could have been reflected by the scoreline at the interval with Belgium retreating further and rowing amongst themselves with Kevin De Bruyne especially irate.
The highest-ranked side in the competition held an animated summit in the tunnel ahead of the resumption, with Wilmots beefing up the midfield bv replacing Carrasco with Fellaini.
It didn’t work, even though they kicked off with one of those five-minute patches which fools people into thinking they are about to tear an opponent apart. Wilmots responded by acting as cheerleader for the vocal majority of a crowd that made a short trip across the border.
They were silenced by a deadly break from a Welsh outfit that are top seeds in Ireland’s 2018 World Cup group. Bale released Ramsey, with the Arsenal midfielder popping up everywhere in a fluid 3-5-2 where he interchanged with the Spanish-based superstar. Belgium had struggled to cope with that formation in their opening loss to Italy.
Ramsey’s centre was controlled by Robson-Kanu who shaped to pass to the inrushing Neil Taylor only to perform a Cruyff turn that left Meunier and Jason Denayer hailing a cab as he calmly found a way past Thibaut Courtois.
Belgium huffed and puffed in search of a leveller, throwing bodies into the box and hoping for second balls. They did have a shout for a penalty when Nainggolan went down in the box, and Davies might have picked up a second yellow.
Their post-mortem will start internally, though, with Wales applying a wonderful insurance goal at the death when Sam Vokes rose to gracefully dispatch a perfect centre from Chris Gunter. Anything is possible now.