Wales could hear the call of history. They reached the quarter-finals of the 1958 World Cup but had never been in the semi-finals of a major tournament and the challenge was to surpass those sepia-tinted images. How they answered it on a night that will surely go down as their finest on a football field.
It had looked grim for the opening 25 minutes when Belgium – star-studded Belgium, the team ranked No2 in the world – came at Wales from all angles. Radja Nainggolan’s 30-yard thunderbolt felt as though it might be the prompt for a rout.
But this Wales team write their own scripts. They have been driven this far by a ravenous appetite; they are a bunch of mates playing together and they refused to buckle
Aaron Ramsey was magnificent, eclipsing Gareth Bale to engineer the comeback and the heartbreaking footnote was that he will miss Wednesday’s semi-final against Portugal in Lyon through suspension. He was booked for handball as he leant towards an attempted Belgium through-ball. Ben Davies will also miss the semi-final for a second yellow card.
The defining moment was Hal Robson-Kanu’s goal that put Wales in front, when he bamboozled Thomas Meunier and Marouane Fellaini – together with Jason Denayer behind them – with a jaw-dropping Cruyff turn. The Belgian trio were last seen heading towards the Quatre Cantons metro station.
Robson-Kanu kept his cool to shoot past Thibaut Courtois and he had even had the presence of mind for a little joke when he sprinted towards the celebrating Wales bench and kept on going. He soon checked back for the second pile-on of the match – the first having followed Ashley Williams’s headed equaliser.
It was a triumph of the collective, and one to give Belgium and their Golden Generation nightmares. Marc Wilmots’s team had recovered at these finals from the defeat against Italy to beat Republic of Ireland, Sweden and Hungary. They thumped Ireland and Hungary. This is a team with tremendous attacking potential, who can cut loose.
Wales did not let them. They stabilised after the initial onslaught and no one could say they did not deserve the victory or, even, that it was a particularly rocky ride until the substitute, Sam Vokes, added the third with a thumping header. Wales were comfortable.
The match had started for them with a thunderous rendition of the national anthem and it ended with the players running towards the Welsh fans and throwing themselves into full-length dives. Bale and his team-mates whipped them up into choruses of “Wales, Wales” and there were also the touching moments when the players could embrace their children at the end.
It was the biggest game in the history of Welsh football. Bar none. Chris Coleman had billed it as such before adding he meant “no disrespect” to the 1958 team. Coleman had recalled the well-known story about how the boys from that World Cup had returned home to be asked where they had been. On holiday?
This time, the eyes of Wales were on Lille. It had felt like a home fixture for Belgium given the proximity of their border and they had ten of thousands of supporters. But Coleman’s team could feel the backing from those under the banner of the dragon who had made it to northern France and all of those back at home.
Belgium began at breakneck pace, with Kevin De Bruyne calling the tune from the No10 position. Davies and Chris Gunter were booked for early fouls on him while Wales also had James Chester cautioned for a trip on Romelu Lukaku before the midway point of the first-half. It was easy to fear the worst at that stage.
Nainggolan’s goal had been advertised. Wales had survived a triple scare in the seventh minute that featured a save from Wayne Hennessey after Yannick Carrasco had been unmarked at the far post; a goalline block by Neil Taylor and another deflection that sent Eden Hazard’s rebound over the crossbar. From the corner, Romelu Lukaku stretched but he could not convert.
By the interval, Wales had taken charge. It was a stunning turnaround, driven by the runs of Bale and, in particular, the craft of Ramsey. Has the Arsenal midfielder ever had a better game?
Belgium’s defence had a patched-up feel after the suspension of Thomas Vermaelen and the injury to Jan Vertonghen, and Denayer and Jordan Lukaku looked anxious. It was startling to see how ragged they were at times.
Wales gained a foothold when Ramsey crossed and Taylor forced Courtois into a reflex save. The goalkeeper was beaten when those in front of him switched off for Ramsey’s corner and, when Williams arrived like a TGV train, there would be only one outcome.
The first-half ended with Wales turning the screw. Bale ran at Denayer and extended Courtois; Ramsey saw a shot deflect wide and, from another Ramsey cross, Robson-Kanu’s header worked Courtois. It was breathless stuff.
Wilmots had been so concerned by the influence of Bale and Ramsey he introduced Fellaini for Carrasco at half-time to bulk up in central areas. Initially, it looked to have worked. Romelu Lukaku headed a gilt-edged chance wide and Hazard fizzed a shot past the far post.
Wales tore back and Robson-Kanu wrote his name into folklore with his goal. The move had been started by Bale’s ball forward and it was Ramsey, inevitably, who supplied the assist. Robson-Kanu had Joe Allen on the overlap and it seemed to spook the Belgium defenders. They did not expect the Cryuff tribute. No one did.
What did Belgium have left? Not enough, and it was difficult to recall many nervy moments for the Wales defence, apart from one header by Fellaini.
When Vokes headed home from Gunter’s cross, the celebrations could get into full swing. They would rage long into the night.
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