KEIR RADNEDGE in LILLE: Wales may be considered as primarily a rugby nation but no victory at the 15-man code will ever reap the worldwide attention achieved by their presence in the semi-finals of the other football’s 2016 European Championship.
Their thrilling 3-1 victory in Lille over Belgium – Europe’s top team in the world rankings – brought a belated aura of excitement and drama to the bloated and hitherto lacklustre finals.
Goals from skipper Ashley Williams, striker Hal Robson-Kanu and substitute Sam Vokes also ensured the players status alongside the heroes of 1958, the one and only previous occasion on which Wales had reached a major finals.
That was in Sweden at the 1958 World Cup. But even then legendary heroes of the Welsh game such as John Charles, Ivor Allchurch and Jack Kelsey reached ‘only’ the quarter-finals.
Now Wales, a team representing a principality of 3m people, are in the last four while the likes of Spain, Croatia, Poland, Russia not to mention England have all left for home. Next challenge is Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, in Lyon on Wednesday.
Victory over Belgium, who were virtually a home team in Lille, was highly emotional. Players, some in tears, and staff remained on the pitch long after the final whistle, savouring what may be he most glorious moment in the careers of many. Fans who remained burst into the national anthem, Land of My Fathers, singing it as only the Welsh can.
The only downside to victory was the knowledge that solid central defender Ben Davies and Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey will miss the semi-final after collecting second tournament yellow cards.
The entire tournament will be the poorer for their absence since Ramsey, in particular, may never have played better for his country than against Belgian team who ultimately lacked the discipline and psychological capacity to hold on to the early lead provided by a magnificent strike from Radja Nainggolan.
Wales manager Chris Coleman had brought back Robson-Kanu to lead attack in place of Vokes and take some of the attacking weight off Gareth Bale while opposite number Marc Wilmots resolved Belgium’s injury and suspension issues in defence by calling up Jason Denayer at centre-back with Jordan Lukaku, younger brother of centre-forward Romelu, at leftback.
The Red Devils have quite broken through the glass ceiling of expectation. They were disappointed to lose marginally by 1-0 to Argentina at the last World Cup in Brazil in 2014. Here yet again they fell short, by their own standards and ambitions.
Belgium had begun with so much intent. In only the sixth minute they were foiled a rapid-fire three times. First Yannick Carrasco was denied by keeper Wayne Hennessey then Thomas Meunier’s shot on the rebound was blocked on the goal-line by Neil Taylor before Eden Hazard’s fierce drive was deflected over the bar.
Deservedly then, Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan broke the deadlock in the 14th minute with a magnificent strike from 30yd after Hazard had lured Welsh attention. But then Belgium sat back, fatally.
They were warned when Neil Taylor had an effort well saved in a defensive scramble by Thibaud Courtois. But then the Belgian keeper was beaten on the halfhour when Williams leaned forward to head home a right-wing corner from Ramsey.
The corner had been won by Bale who then delivered a scare for Belgium of his own with an attacking run and shot which forced another diving save from Courtois.
Belgium brought on Marouane Fellaini at the start of the second half for Carrasco and switched De Bruyne to the right wing. Fellaini had an instant impact. First he fed Thomas Meunier, whose cross was headed wide by Ronelu Lukaku, then he set up De Bruyne for a shot whipped just over the bar.
But the Belgians were in for yet another shock. Bale found Ramsey scooting up the right wing and Robson-Kanu collected the cross and turned Meunier before beating Courtois decisively from close range to put Wales 2-1 ahead.
Belgium were badly rattled. Fellaini was booked for trampling on Bale, Hazard began meandering aimlessly across the pitch, De Bruyne lost himself down the left wing and their passing grew increasingly ragged.
As they piled forward so Fellaini missed badly with a header to Tony Alderweireld’s perfect right-wing cross. But this desperation left them vulnerable to the killing counter-attack from which newly-arrived substitute Vokes headed the 85th-minute third Welsh goal from Gunter’s right wing cross.
“Are you watching, England?” sang the deleriously happy Welsh fans at the final whistle.
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