Euro 2020(1): Day Five – Don’t Take Them Home
For fifty minutes yesterday evening, Wales’s future in the Euro 2020 hung very much in the balance in the most fragile of ways. They led Turkey by a goal to nil in Baku, but a Gareth Bale missed penalty had denied them an extension to their advantage which would likely have killed the game stone dead. One goal for Turkey, and Welsh celebrations would Rome into Tiber melt. They’d need a result from their final match against Italy there to have any realistic chance of getting through to the next round of the competition.
Turkey were pushing forward in heavy numbers. They needed that goal. But in doing so, they were leaving vast tracts of space open behind their defenders. A goal for Wales would leave them needing to beat Switzerland and hope for the best, at best. The margins between victory and defeat in football are so narrow that they’ve become a cliché, but this was taking that perspective of the game to the extreme.
It wasn’t that Turkey were creating chance after chance, peppering the Welsh goal with shots that were getting closer and closer to their target. It’s more that Wales have a history with grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory, and that missed penalties have a place in that story. In 1993, they missed out on a World Cup finals place thanks in no small part to a missed penalty by defender Paul Bodin in their final qualification match against Romania. Their opponents that night got to the quarter-finals of the following summer’s World Cup finals in the USA. Wales still haven’t appeared in one since 1958.
And that shit cuts deep. It digs into the soul of a nation’s football culture, becoming just as much a part of it as winning trophies does for other, luckier nations. Wales took 58 years to repeat that achievement, and when they did get there, in France five years ago, they had the mother of all parties and reached the semi-finals of the competition. But inevitable questions follow an achievement like this, the most obvious of which is… was this the start of a new future for this footballing nation, or was the summer of 2016 a once in a lifetime event, just as getting to the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 1958 was?
For the first 40 minutes, Wales pushed and prodded, created chances, and limited Turkey to their own half of the pitch. It took just six minutes for Gareth Bale to pick out Aaron Ramsey with a pinpoint pass as the Turkish defence looked the other way. Ramsey, eight yards out but at a bit of an angle, had Kieffer Moore standing on the other side of the six yard area screaming for the ball, but Ramsey opted to shoot instead and saw his shot blocked by the goalkeeper’s legs. Midway through the half, the same combination put Ramsey through on goal for a second time, but he rushed his shot and it flew harmlessly over the crossbar.
Three minutes from half-time, though, Turkey demonstrated that they hadn’t learned their lesssons. Balae again picked out Ramsey with a magnificent twenty yard diagnonal pass. With the Turkey defence apparently waiting for an offside flag against players who were clearly inactive, Ramsey controlled the ball with one touch and rolled the ball under the Turkish goalkeeper Cakir and in.
Turkey apparently emerged for the second half having apparently been given a rocket up the backside during the interval, but their second half performance told a familiar story. They were physically imposing, but a lack of imagination attacking positions left the Welsh defence with little but murshalling to do. Attacking footballers are the most gifted they’ve ever been, but the nature of modern defending and the offside rule places creativity at the top of the list of requirements for any team hoping to create a lot of goalscoring chances.
Just after the hour came an opportunity for Wales to make their remaining job considerably more comfortable. Bale worked his way to the left-hand edge of the Turkish penalty and drew Mehmet Celik into an unnecessary foul. The penalty kick is front and centre in he history of Welsh international football heartbreak, and when Gareth Bale stepped up… he blazed the kick a foot over Cakir’s crossbar and away. With a missed penalty such as this, there can be bigger issues to deal with than just having not scored a goal. The psychological effects, the disruption to momentum, that lingering feeling of what might have been can be way more debilitating than having a one goal lead rather than a two goal lead.
Despite Turkey’s aggression, though, Wales continued to hold their own. The stadium clock went into slow motion. But Turkey had little with which they could break the Welsh defence down. Rob Page had switched from a three-man defence to a four-man defence before the match, and the shape of his defence and defensive midfield formation seemed comfortably able to tidy the ball up on the few occasions when the ball did break towards their goal. Frustration and emotions bubbled to the surface. With a couple of minutes to play, a push and shove between Ben Davies and Yilmaz spilled over into the sort of row that might have been good for a red card or two. The referee, however, settled for issuing three yellow cards at the same time.
Five minutes into stoppage-time, Wales forced the ball down the left. With Robbie Savage urging the players torun the clock down in the corner of the pitch, a speculative cross was flicked behind for a corner. With Savage now bellowing from the top of the stand, a short corner was tapped to Bale, who cut into the penalty area along the goal line and insouciantly rolled the ball back for Connor Roberts to prod the ball under Cakir and in. 2-0 to Wales. The final whistle blew seconds later.
Turkey were dismal. Let’s not gloss over that. For all their second half huffing and puffing, their only significant chance came right at the end, when a header from close range brought a superb save from Danny Ward. They can still qualify with a big win against Switzerland in their final match, but it seems unlikely now that they won’t finish at the bottom of the group and that, if they don’t, they’ll end up with a good enough record to be one of the four from six third-placed teams to snatch a second round place. “Dark horses”, it turns out, remains the phrase that is thrown around when we don’t know very much about a team but don’t want to be seen to be writing them off. Perhaps we should have done, in this particular case.
And Wales party on. Their performance in Baku wasn’t without its faults, the missed penalty and other spurned opportunities amongst them. What they do have, though, is two genuinely world class players. Aaron Ramsey may have taken three goes to get there, but he did in the end. Gareth Bale may have Bodinned his penalty, but he teed up both other goals, and his vision and experience more than cover for any pace he may have dropped with his advancing years. With all bar a most unlikely set of results – now involving matches in other groups – guaranteeing them a place in the second round with a game to spare, they can even focus on the (extremely complicated, right now) question of who they’ll face in that last sixteen.
Having seen them in action for a second time afterwards, we can at least express relief that Wales don’t need a result from their game with Italy. They brushed Switzerland aside in Rome with the minimum of fuss, another elegant performance against limited oppostion, with two goals from Manuel Locatelli and a late goal from Ciro Immobile wrapping up a comfortable 3-0 win. Italy remain amongst the favourites to win the entire tournament, but it still feels as though they haven’t been really tested, two games in.
The early match in St Petersburg was little write home about. Aleksey Miranchuk scored the only goal of the game against Finland in first half stoppage-time and Finland ad a very early goal chalked off by the Roboref, but we were left wondering how the awful events of last Saturday evening might have impacted the psychology of this team. With Belgium still to play, it remains possible that Finland could be eliminated in third place, but this was no great tournament lift-off for Russia at this tournament and it remains difficult to see how they will get past stronger opponents than this, should they end up meeting them.