For Wales these are the moments that define lives as well as careers.
Qualifying for a major tournament for the first time since 1958 was one thing. Creating a legacy that extends beyond taking part in Euro 2016 is quite another. Euphoric in Bordeaux and crestfallen in Lens, Wales are determined to leave Toulouse as history-makers.
The mood is one of cautious optimism within the Wales camp, fuelled by a determination to finish what they started with that victory against Slovakia in their opening group game. Edith Piaf’s Je Ne Regrette Rien may as well have been playing in the background as Joe Allen, capturing the significance of the occasion, urged his team-mates to seize the moment against Russia on Monday night and to leave south-west France without any nagging sense of what might have been.
“That is one of the huge things that motivates us,” Allen said. “We understand that this is for all of us not just a key part of our careers. It’s such a key part of our lives.
“Further down the line we want to look back with pride and understand that it wasn’t something that we took for granted and didn’t approach in a way that we would not have wanted. I have no doubt that all of us in this team will be in a position to look back and be proud.”
While victory will guarantee Chris Coleman’s side a place in the last 16, a draw or defeat would leave them waiting on other results, including the score in the England-Slovakia game, to discover their fate. Elimination would be no disgrace for this team, although Allen admitted after picking up three points against Slovakia that it would now be viewed as an “anticlimax” if they failed to make the knockout stage.
“Of course it would be,” the Liverpool midfielder said. “I think coming off the pitch, no matter what happens, we’re confident we’ll do the business, we want to make sure that we throw absolutely everything at it. We don’t want to have any regrets. We’re confident that we can get ourselves into the knockout rounds and after that who knows what could happen?”
The gut-wrenching injury-time defeat against England in Lens, Coleman said, belonged to the past and there was an implication that lessons have been learned in terms of where Wales can improve. “Some people expect us to be on a downer after the England result. But that’s done; we have boxed it off,” the Wales manager said. “We were critical of ourselves when we analysed it. Out of possession they were fantastic. But it’s just we can be a bit better on the ball.”
Allen, playing alongside Joe Ledley in the now-familiar 3-4-2-1 formation, will be a key figure when it comes to the need to show greater composure and the hope for Wales is that they can get Gareth Bale into the game much more as a result. Although Bale has scored free-kicks against Slovakia and England, he has been on the periphery in both matches, to the point that Wayne Hennessey and Danny Ward, the Wales goalkeepers, have so far averaged more passes in the tournament than the world’s most expensive footballer. “Ultimately if we’re not keeping the ball, it’s difficult to do what I try to do best,” Bale said.
Russia know that only a win will keep alive their own hopes of reaching the last 16 and from a Wales point of view the idea of Leonid Slutski’s team qualifying at their expense would be particularly hard to accept because of what happened when the two countries met in 2003. Coleman was part of Mark Hughes’s backroom staff back then, when Wales lost 1-0 in a Euro 2004 play-off, courtesy of Vadim Evseev’s header in Cardiff.
“That wasn’t the first time for me,” Coleman said, when reminded of that play-off defeat. “It happened to me in 1993 against Romania. Heartbreaking, hence the celebrations when we qualified for this one. But we’re a different Wales team and it’s a different Russian team. So I can’t say my message to my players is we’re going to make up for that loss. It’s a different era, two different teams and a different situation. That was a long, long time ago, these boys will be concentrating on what is ahead of them. It’s about now.”
While Ben Davies and James Chester have both impressed in the opening two games, Ashley Williams’s form as part of that three-man defence has been a concern. The Wales captain came into the tournament on the back of a poor display against Sweden in their warm-up game in Stockholm, struggled against Slovakia and was at fault for Jamie Vardy’s equaliser in the 2-1 defeat against England in Lens. Wales need a commanding performance from Williams in the country’s most important match since the 1958 World Cup finals.
“This is what you dream about as a kid,” Allen said. “Being at this kind of event, representing your country, it’s what I’ve strived to achieve in my career and I’m sure if you ask any of the lads they’ll feel the same.
“The beauty of this tournament is also how much it’s meant to the fans. You can see how much they’ve embraced it and enjoyed it. They’re going into this Russia game like us, can’t wait and knowing we’ve got what it takes to go through.”
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