Saturday 16 December 2017

Win over Belgium delights Coleman

Wales boss is happy to see his players raise fans' expectations

Wales manager Chris Coleman
Wales manager Chris Coleman

David Hytner

Chris Coleman inhabits an industry in which words must be measured and excitement kept in check. This, however, was a momentous occasion. The 1-0 home win over Belgium in Euro 2016 qualifying Group B on Friday night was one of the finest results in Welsh football history and it will go down as the moment when the nation shed their inhibitions and began to believe they would reach their first major finals since 1958. As such, the managerial protocol was booted into touch.

"I won't say to the Welsh public: 'Keep calm,'" Coleman said. "I'll say: 'No, don't keep calm. Get excited.' If the public think we are going to qualify, we have to accept that and produce. We've been doing that so far. I always said it would be about us, not any of the other sides, and I don't see us choking or anything like that. I believe in these players and we have to match the expectations of the Welsh public."

It says much that the post-match discussion took in the issue of Wales throwing it away, because the qualification is most assuredly in their hands. The victory carried them three points clear of Belgium at the top of the table but, more significantly, moved them five points clear of third-placed Israel with four matches to play. The top two qualify automatically.

"I would take second now," Coleman said. "I am happy with anything that gets us to the finals."

There were a few sore heads in Cardiff yesterday morning. On St Mary's Street, one or two stragglers stumbled about signing the Zombie Nation tune, which has become something of a fan anthem. Cardiff was a Zombie City, yet the enormity of the night before was sinking in.

Wales will enter the World Cup qualifying draw in Russia next month in the top pot of seeds, having bolstered their ranking with the scalp of Belgium - who sit second on the world list. Wales were in the bottom pot for the 2010 World Cup draw. But that is for further down the line. It is the here and now, the Euro finals in France, that is quickening the pulse.

"It is a big turnaround from where we were," Coleman said. "We can say we have not achieved anything yet but we have achieved quite a bit and we should enjoy it. We are now a player on the world stage. We have to stop thinking of ourselves as little old Wales and we have done that. It takes time to climb the rankings, especially when you consider we were 112th. We are up there on merit.

"We were playing against the best ever Belgium team and we've taken four points off them during the campaign. Our players have had that tag of the golden generation and they haven't earned it yet but they are on the way to earning it. I've said all along they are good enough to do something special."

The progress is startling and Ashley Williams, the inspirational captain, summed it up when he said that he remembered sitting in the dressing room in September 2012 after the 6-1 loss to Serbia in a World Cup qualifier. Look at Wales now. Jan Vertonghen, the Belgium defender, described Wales as the "favourites"to make it to France while Thibaut Courtois, the Belgium goalkeeper, said that his country would "try to qualify as well with them."

The Wales revival has been built upon solid foundations. Remarkably, Coleman's team have conceded only two goals in this campaign and neither came in open play. For all of Belgium's pressure in the second-half, they were unable to create any clear-cut chances. Everybody answered Coleman's call to leave nothing on the field, pitching in hard to the collective effort.

Gareth Bale, who scored the decisive goal and was brilliant, began to cramp up in the 70th minute and he was eventually forced off. He said he could not walk afterwards. "How often do you see a world-class player get cramp?" Williams said. "It just shows what Gareth is willing to go through."

Bale said that his goal was "definitely the most important" of his career, and this is from a player who scored in Real Madrid's Champions League final victory of 2014.

Coleman described him as being "desperate" to help Wales to qualify, and it is a sentiment shared by the rest of the squad. "We're a match for anyone now," Williams said. "We've shed our inferiority complex. Belgium have unbelievable talent but so do we. There were players dying out there with cramp and everything but they just pushed through it. The cause is greater than the pain."

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