Gareth Bale said that qualification for the knockout stage of Euro 2016 with Wales sits alongside anything he has achieved with Real Madrid and he also described Monday’s emphatic victory over Russia that secured their place in the last 16 as one of the best team performances he has ever been involved in.
On a memorable and historic night for Welsh football, Russia were beaten 3-0 in Toulouse, with Aaron Ramsey, Neil Taylor and Bale scoring the goals that enabled them to take advantage of England’s failure to beat Slovakia and finish as the Group B winners, setting up a last-16 tie against one of the third-placed qualifiers at the Parc des Princes on Saturday.
For Bale, who is now the tournament’s leading scorer with three goals, it felt like a seminal moment in his career. “It is hard to describe, it was an unbelievable occasion,” he said. “It is right up there with anything I have done. Given the pressure of the game that was one of the best team performances I have ever been a part of.”
After losing 2-1 against England in Lens last Thursday, Wales showed character and courage to not only beat Russia but do so in style. Their slick, incisive passing was a joy to watch at times as Bale, Ramsey and Joe Allen all produced stellar performances.
“We spoke after the England game that we needed to be better in keeping the ball – and we did that,” Bale said. “Obviously, that created the space that allowed me, Rambo [Ramsey] and the midfielders to get on the ball more and when you do that you get the chance to do what we do best. It was a great team performance, everything was spot-on.”
Asked whether he had ever experienced a better night in a Wales shirt, Bale replied: “No, we have had some amazing nights over the last few years but that was really incredible. To top the group is an even better feeling and it is one we want to keep having.”
Russia, who finished bottom of the group with only one point from three matches, were desperately poor but Bale suggested that it was more a case of how well Wales played than highlighting their opponents’ shortcomings. “We were just very, very good,” he said. “We did our homework, we knew what to expect and I thought our gameplan was perfect. It was amazing.”
With the game effectively over midway through the second half, Chris Coleman took the opportunity to give Bale a rest and withdrew him seven minutes from time. The 26-year-old received a rapturous ovation from the Wales supporters as he left the pitch.
“I have not trained for a few days as we have been recovering between games but it was an amazing feeling,” Bale said, reflecting on that moment. “It was like a home game and to be able to take it in, 3-0 up, was special.”
While Wales are unsure who they will face on Saturday, the fact that they have finished as group winners opens up the possibility of going deeper in the tournament. “It definitely does,” Bale said. “There are no easy games but this might give us a slightly easier game. Finishing top is better than second or third, it is good for us and we want to concentrate on ourselves and getting it right for the next game.
“When we do that we know we perform well and that goes for everyone, including the fans. They were amazing [in Toulouse] and I just hope we can keep giving them reasons to celebrate.”
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