“Don’t take me home, please don’t take me home,” sang the Wales supporters on an evening when there was never any danger that Chris Coleman’s players would do anything other than prolong their stay in France. Inspired by Gareth Bale, Wales were irrepressible as they subjected Russia to a humiliating defeat and secured their place in the knockout stage of Euro 2016 as group winners.
This was fairytale stuff for a nation appearing at its first major tournament in 58 years. By the end of the evening Coleman was responding to the Wales fans’ requests for a wave as every pass was cheered in what started to feel like an exhibition match. Wales were in dreamland and it will be some occasion on Saturday in Paris at the Parc des Princes.
It is a measure of Wales’s dominance that the scoreline flattered Russia on a balmy night in Toulouse. Bale left the field to a standing ovation after registering his third goal in the three matches to become the outright leading scorer in the tournament, yet there were so many other Wales heroes. Aaron Ramsey, who scored the opening goal and set up Bale for the third, was outstanding, Joe Allen delivered another imperious performance in centre midfield and then there was that wonderful moment when Neil Taylor, of all people, popped up with the second goal.
Taylor had never scored for his country and his last goal at any level was for Wrexham against Grays in the Blue Square Bet Premier in front of 298 people in April 2010. There were less than 20 minutes on the clock when Taylor ended that drought and from Russia’s point of view the evening had already turned into a chastening experience and an exercise in damage limitation.
Wales continued to pour forward and but for Igor Akinfeev, the overworked Russian goalkeeper, the margin of victory would have been far greater. Bale tormented Russia time and again, to the point that it seemed a question of when, not if, the world’s most expensive footballer would get on the scoresheet.
That moment finally arrived midway through the second half, following a flowing move that involved Joe Ledley, Chris Gunter and Ramsey. Bale, showing composure and class, killed Ramsey’s pass dead and steered the ball round Akinfeev with the outside of his boot to apply the coup de grace.
With their supporters going through their full repertoire of songs and cherishing one of the most famous results in their country’s history, the night got even better for Wales when it was announced that England had been held to a goalless draw in Saint Étienne. All roads now point to the French capital for a team that played with courage, belief and conviction only four days after that gut-wrenching defeat against England.
Without taking anything away from Wales, who were magnificent, it has to be said that Russia were woeful and it was no surprise to hear Leonid Slutsky say afterwards that it is time for someone else to take over as coach. Russia’s contribution to this tournament will be remembered for all the wrong reasons and it was extraordinary to see Wales carve them open with such ease from first minute to last.
Ramsey’s opening goal was a beauty, wonderfully taken and superbly crafted by Allen, who makes this Wales team tick with his intelligent passing. James Chester deserves credit for the interception that Allen, with some dexterous footwork in the centre of the pitch, made the most of to spin away before delivering a majestic through-ball. As Akinfeev dashed from his line, Ramsey took a touch and dinked the ball over the Russian keeper.
Bale was everywhere, making the most of the freedom that Russia afforded him as he glided past players almost at will, eating up the ground in front of him as he set off on those driving runs that leave defenders trailing. Even when the ball was nicked off Bale’s toe, as happened in the lead-up to the second goal, Wales profited.
Roman Shirokov inadvertently released Taylor in oceans of space in the inside left channel and time seemed to stand still for a moment as the full-back, with only Akinfeev to beat, wondered what to do next. Taylor’s first attempt was saved but the second – with Akinfeev stranded – was stabbed into the net from eight yards.
Russia briefly threatened when Akinfeev punted long upfield and Ashley Williams, stretching as the ball drifted over his head, touched it into the path of Artem Dzyuba. Wayne Hennessey, however, was quickly off his line and the striker’s first-time shot was turned behind. At the other end Sam Vokes, a surprise inclusion ahead of Hal Robson-Kanu, should have added a third when Bale set him up only for Akinfeev to save. The Russia keeper frustrated Bale on numerous occasions but the Real Madrid forward kept coming back for more and finally got his reward. Ledley’s raking diagonal pass picked out Gunter in space on the right and the ball was moved on to Ramsey, who expertly picked out Bale for the third. Wales were rampant and the party was well and truly under way.
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