Euro 2016: One Night in Lille
It was a perfect way to end a horrible, dysfunctional week. It has felt for all the world as though the sky is falling in this week, as though the dystopian outlooks of so many films and television programmes set in the near future is finally starting to crank into gear, and those of us who have had a strip of their identity taken from us and been told that we’re “traitors” for feeling the way that we do about it all needed something positive, a cathartic moment to deliver us from the first tentative steps of a new world order in which we most likely don’t belong. On Friday night in Lille, Wales delivered that moment on an evening that will be burnt eternally into the sporting folklore of a country that has been starved of any form of international football success for almost six decades, even by their own modest standards.
One of the most consistent tropes of Euro 2016 so far has been the importance of the team and the tactical set-up over the talents of the individual players concerned. We’ve seen it repeatedly from Iceland whilst Belgium, in their opening match against Italy, demonstrated the inverse of this, that a collection of even the most lavishly assembled star players can look like something quite ordinary if not set up to play to a system. Since that defeat, they’d given the impression of having overcome this, of moving ominously through the gears in the general direction of their full potential, but last night they had nothing against a collective bundle of nervous energy of a Welsh team that started shakily but grew into their job as the evening wore on and, when all was said and done, thoroughly deserved their momentous victory.
Wales, of course, were supposed to fall into this category, a glitter-drizzled Gareth Bale plus ten journeymen who would, we were assured, come to measure their success by how many times they could feed the ball to their main man. But where Sweden failed with Zlatan Ibrahimovic anonymous and Poland dropped out with Robert Lewandowski only briefly flickering to life, this team’s progress has been distinguished by those journeymen stepping up when required, a collective ethic that has now propelled the team to a semi-final match against Portugal next week. Most are still in a state of some disbelief over their achievement in getting to this stage of the competition, but they’re already just ninety minutes – and a winnable match against a Portugal team that has failed to win in ninety minutes so far in this tournament – from a place in the final.
It didn’t necessarily look as if this was going to be the outcome of it all after fifteen minutes had been played in Lille last night. Yannick Carrasco had a shot blocked at the far post blocked by the Wales goalkeeper Wayne Hennessy the rebound was blocked by Neil Taylor and a third effort from Eden Hazard was flicked over the crossbar. From the resultant corner, Romelu Lukaku stretched for a touch that would have put Belgium in front. It was temporary respite for Wales. After thirteen minutes the Wales defence sat off Radja Nainggolan for a couple of seconds too long and Nainggolan’s shot fizzed into the top corner, stinging the very tips of Hennessy’s fingers on the way.
Perhaps conceding that first goal was the icebreaker that Wales needed. It’s entirely possible that it gave the team a purpose and rounded off their game plan. It certainly felt that Belgium’s big tactical mistake of the evening came when they settled back after taking the lead rather than trying to kill the match off altogether. Perhaps it was a little arrogance on their part. Perhaps it was borne of a fear of losing, so great was the burden of expectation resting on the second youngest squad at the tournament. Whatever the reasoning, though it didn’t work, and Wales found themselves back in the match as Belgium fell back and conceded the middle third of the pitch to them. Neil Taylor’s low shot was excellently blocked by Thibaut Courtois, who also saved from Gareth Bale shortly before half-time, but sandwiched between these saves he was powerless to stop Ashley Williams drilling a head in from six yards with the Belgium defence – as it was for most of the evening – treating the set-piece as though involvement in was optional.
Belgium came out flying in the second half as well, with Lukaku dropping a head wide of the post when he should really have scored and Hazard curling a shot from the left hand side of the penalty area narrowly wide. Cometh the hour, cometh… Thomas Henry Alex Robson-Kanu. International football has a habit of throwing up moments so extraordinary that it can be difficult to get a grip on them in moment. A clipped cross into the Belgian penalty area seemed dangerous only because the defence facing it had already shown itself to be so porous, but none of this bothered Robson-Kanu. One touch to bring the ball under perfect control, a second to flick it between Thomas Meunier and Marouane Fellaini, and a third to steadily drive it past Courtois and into the goal.
It was a goal for the ages, and it will surely be a leading contender for goal of the tournament, but Robson-Kanu – who is out of contract after having been released by Reading this time last month but will surely not remain without a club for long now – had not only scored the goal of his life, but had also produced the moment that proved to be the axis upon which this entire match played out. As Belgium poured forward in search of an equaliser, the Wales defence had to absorb and absorb. It wasn’t plain sailing, either. Belgium had a strong call for a penalty kick waved away by the referee, the half-chances kept coming, whilst Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies picked up yellow cards that see them miss the semi-final.
With five minutes to play, however, the match was finally put beyond Belgium’s reach. That a third goal on the break should have been likely was little surprise. After all, Belgium’s defence had appeared sieve-like for most of the evening, but where it came from certainly was. Sam Vokes had only been on the pitch for four minutes when Chris Gunter, who may have been forgiven had he chosen to go for the corner flag to waste a few seconds, cross the ball in from the right for Vokes to flick a stunning header across Courtois and into the opposite corner of the goal. In a moment, this match passed from being one of the best of the tournament so far to being unquestionably the greatest moment in the entire history of Welsh football.
Whither Belgium, we might well ask. A team of such talent in all positions had a most curious tournament, starting with a performance which hinted at a failure to have a great deal of game plan before seeming to get their act ominously together in their remaining group matches and second round match before coming apart again at the seams again when faced with a team with a plan that everybody stuck to and a determination not to buckle in the face of a team filled with such high profile faces. Coach Marc Wilmots holds onto his position for now, but the Belgian FA will be more than aware that this generation of players has a limited shelf-life, and that if it is to reach the sum of its parts it may require a new manager to nudge it back into the right direction.
Wales, meanwhile, live to fight another day and will take on Portugal in the semi-finals. Portugal have reached this stage of the tournament without having won a match in ninety minutes and, although they have the stellar talent of Cristiano Ronaldo still amongst their ranks, there doesn’t seem to be anything very much for Wales to fear in this match. Can a mixture of momentum, an indomitable team spirit and several players hitting the form of their lives at the same time be enough to win the match? Well yes, of course they can. They were against Belgium. But a broader story has already been written by Wales in France this summer. Memories have been created, and a legend has already been written that will not be diminished by anything that happens over the course of the remainder of the competition. The ghosts of fifty-eight years of varying degrees of disappointment have been exorcised and, no matter how uncertain all of our futures may feel today, at least for Welsh football supporters the present feels like a moment in time within which they would like to be trapped forever.
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