When you think of Welsh heroes over history; you picture ground-breaking inventors, explorers, politicians, soldiers, maybe even actors and singers too. In the age of overpaid and pampered footballers across the globe, especially in the British Isles, you don’t expect the names of these athletes to be added to the list. But Gareth Bale, Ashley Williams, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, Ben Davies and their teammates, along with their tactful yet irritatingly over-confident manager Chris Coleman, have wrote themselves into the history books as brave, #togetherstronger (a hashtag a team has finally lived up to) soldiers of their tiny nation over the course of these Euros. But today they came up against their toughest test of the competition, the 2nd-in-the-world Belgians, who have one of the most packed squads of glittering treasure of any side in history, with the names rolling off a list; Hazard, Lukaku, De Bruyne, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Courtois, Nainggolan and Witsel. This match was all built up to be a classic, a seismic clash of two over-performing (for their size) and highly talented, hardworking nations.
Chris Coleman just made a single change to the side which edged out Northern Ireland in the previous round; Hal Robson-Kanu replacing the slower, more direct Sam Vokes up front. Marc Wilmots, on the other hand, made three alterations, two enforced, with Yannick Carrasco coming in for Dries Mertens and the suspended Thomas Vermaelen and the crocked Jan Vertonghen being replaced with the criminally underrated Jason Denayer and the overshadowed (in terms of family bragging rights) Jordan Lukaku. This may have bolstered their pace in defence, but it hindered their big-game experience and technical ability, which Wales hoped to capitalise on.
In the opening stages though, it was the attacking stars of Belgium who shone through, with Yannick Carrasco, Thomas Meunier and Eden Hazard all striking great chances to score straight at either Wayne Hennessey or his defence, who blockaded the goal. This was only seven minutes in, and if Wales fans thought they would have everything their own way, they were dangerously misunderstood. This danger then transformed into reality, when, only about five minutes later, Radja Nainggolan scored another contender for goal of the tournament after a short passing move that culminated in Hazard offloading it to the mohawked midfielder. I literally sat open-mouthed as his rocket of a shot, just to the left of the goal, 20 yards out or so, flew straight past a misplaced and out-of-their-depth Welsh defence and a desperately stretching Hennessey at breakneck speed, ripping into the back of the net. Maybe we shouldn’t have seen it as a surprise since he scored his other screamer against Sweden, but Nainggolan blew the collective socks off of the audience as his belter of a fantastically-struck shot cut an agonising wound to Wales’ hopes in both the tournament and the match.
At least the Welsh side got back up and fought for an equaliser, however daunting the proposition against a tough-to-break-down and resolute Belgian set up. Neil Taylor had a great chance palmed away by Courtois after a bemusing play-on after a clear foul on Jordan Lukaku, as Wales built the pressure up and up, with Bale and Ramsey leading the moves. Only a few minutes later, after a neatly won corner by Robson-Kanu, Ashely Williams emphatically and simply headed home a second goal of the match, levelling it up for his nation. The Belgian organisation went to pot, with three men on Bale from the corner, whereas Nainggolan, who was standing there like a lemon, didn’t keep on the Welsh captain, and was made to pay for it. All Williams had to do was take a few steps forward, wait for the ball to be planted on his head by a directly accurate Aaron Ramsey corner, and see it sail past a static Courtois and a shocked De Bruyne in the goal. Thanks a lot guys I cursed, as I had Belgium down as 2-0 victors in this game, and now I would lose out on the second 40 points of this round on my BBC Predictor.
In a way, this game was going in much the same vein as it’s predecessor yesterday; the favourites taking the lead early, the talented challengers equalising about half an hour in and an entertaining first half concluding at a standstill of equals. The only thing we could hope for was a more pulsating second 45 minutes than we had before, and preferably the match to be decided within the 90. As we did, it was time for the BBC pundits to suck up to Wales and Chris Coleman, overhyping however good they were to fill a desperate 15 minutes. ‘Ooh Gary, I totally think they’re going to go out there in the second half, take it to the Belgian defence and win it’ predictably Shearer, Saunders (Dean, not Jennifer) and Ferdinand (Rio, not Franz) cooed, much to the delight of optimistic Welsh ears everywhere. Zzzzzzzz. Only a mesmerising and totally correct Frank Lampard speech about the future of England could save us from the status quo.
Wow, here came some entertainment. Marouane Fellaini, in all of his bumbling, broccoli-haired, sharpened-elbow greatness, graced us all with his very presence on the pitch from the start of the second half for Belgium, replacing a probably perplexed Yannick Carrasco. The very sight of him spurred his teammates on to create some more ominous chances, with Lukaku going close with a header, De Bruyne chancing a shot over the crossbar and Hazard fizzing a shot past Hennessey’s post within the first five minutes of the half.
But it wasn’t the opportunities of Belgium that resulted in the first goal of the second half, shockingly enough. As Ramsey broke with the ball from a 50-yard Gareth Bale pass, he hit a hopeful ball into a lonely Robson-Kanu in the Belgian box, where plenty of space was left vacated by the missing-in-action defence, allowing him to hold the ball for a few seconds. As the onrushing and foolish defence all ran to his right (facing towards his own goal, Robson—Kanu), all the striker had to do was Cruyff-turn them and strike an effort on goal, which was impossible to not go in. Belgium were punished for a lack of organisation and basic defensive skills, and Wales were in tedious and painful (for an Englishman) delirium.
Following that game-changing moment, Belgium were invited to attack by their brave opponents, although the Welsh did defend to a t during this period of high pressure. De Bruyne, Hazard, Fellaini, Nainggolan and Jordan Lukaku all saw plenty of the ball around the box, but the latter’s brother was in effect stranded in a sea of defensive Welsh red, especially that of Ashley Williams. Fellaini somehow sent a perfect heading chance wide for his side, as the timewasting began for Wales, a tough tactic to carry out with a quarter of an hour still left. Lukaku (Romelu for once) was somehow denied a foul on the edge of the box with 12 minutes left, and you could see Wales were getting nervy. I pleaded for Belgium to get back in the game. Nainggolan was denied an easily arguable penalty, as Belgium put their foot on the gas and livened up their tiki-taka play, interchanging the ball with neat flicks and tricks. Michy Batshuayi came on in an attempt to exert pressure, but it didn’t work. Sam Vokes went up the other end, and after he was delivered in a delightful (or rather annoyingly good, again from my perspective) cross from Chris Gunter (who for some reason all the commentators call ‘Güntar’) flicked in a perfect far-post header. That was 3-1, and probably the match. It came just as I was celebrating Sussex CCC (County Cricket Club) beating Middlesex by 7 wickets, so my cries suddenly went from “YEEEEES” to “NOOOO, what are you doing Belgium?”, for some reason in an Australian accent, in the space of a few seconds. Luckily, no one could hear me.
Belgium were helpless to do anything but move the ball and attempt to strike shots on target in shock of what had just happened to their pride and their chances of winning, or at least getting to the final of, Euro 2016. Wales were sent into raptures at the full time whistle, and Belgium were left distraught. It was a blow to English hearts, but I am forced as an apparently impartial ‘reporter’ to congratulate them on reaching the semi-finals. It was shocking stuff against a star-studded Belgian side expected to waltz into the final with their draw. They have delivered an unprecedented place in the history books for their fans. Only Chris Coleman’s disgustingly self-confident, in my opinion teetering over the edge of cocky, post-match interview could make my night worse, and believe me it did. It only made me want to punch the man more.
Team of the Day
Hmph. Wales, next question.
Player of the Day
Aaron Ramsey and Ashley Williams share this award for me today, as Ramsey bossed the pitch in the middle and last thirds, whereas Williams got the opening goal for his side and kept Lukaku in his pocket for the whole 90 minutes. Both led their sides to glory tonight, setting perfect examples to the rest of their teammates on how to play on the international stage. It is such a shame Ramsey will miss out on the semi-final, as it will probably dramatically decrease the overall quality of the match against Portugal.
Goal of the Day
Despite the story of the night obviously being Wales, you still have to admit Nainggolan’s strike takes this award. The way it rose and rose above the Welsh defence until it stuck to the height required to beat Hennessey was astounding to watch, particularly on the slow-motion replay. It was such a shame that it wasn’t the goal of a winning side, through to the semi-finals.
Shock of the Day
Robbie Savage saying the Welsh team is ‘we’. You wouldn’t even be good enough to get in the side of Bala Town these days mate, let alone Wales, so less of the ‘we’ please, I don’t see you running around on that pitch against (according to rankings) the second best side in the world. ‘If that was Messi we’d be talking about it for years’ was a bit of an overstatement by the blonde-haired buffoon, but we’ve got to allow the guy some peace so he can somehow hold down his job in such a well-respected organisation as the BBC. One thing you have to hand him, is that he is only slightly less biased than the horrible pundits they have on BT Sport.
Despite the fact it has nothing to do with Euro 2016 or even international football, I’d just like to point out proper thrashing (none of this 5-0, 10-0 rubbish) handed out by SV Darmstadt 98 (from the German top division) away to SKV Haahnlein (from Kreisliga B, step 8 of the German league system, a village team) today. This was no normal pre-season match, this as men against boys, 0-22 to the first division side to be exact. They even put out their first team against these amateurs, no mercy!
Day Rating: 9/10 (From a neutral’s point of view at least)
I’m Looking Forward to…
Either the match of probably the tournament (considering the lack of quality of the sides left), or the disappointment of the tournament tomorrow, as Italy match up against old foes Germany. Italy will go in with the same defensive-minded, Leicester City-like counter-attacking outlook to the match, whereas the Germans will dominate possession, be sensible in their attacks and look to pin down all of the Italian threats by putting in an early barrier of a goal in place to secure the result if they can. I’ll be rooting all for my adopted nation from here on in Germany, as I believe in their ability to do what they should now (they probably won’t now, I’ll curse them) and win the whole competition.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!