Scores of Welsh football fans may have been content with simply reaching Euro 2016, but that type of thinking should now be jettisoned from their thoughts. They’ve outperformed their Group B rivals to qualify for the last 16 as winners, doing so in style and on merit.
Bar a timid performance against England, Wales were the best team in the group.
Key to Welsh ambitions from here is that they are in the favourable half of the draw. They’ve avoided England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France. Beat Northern Ireland and they will have a combination of Switzerland, Poland, Croatia, Portugal, Hungary or Belgium standing between them and a spot in the final. Ambitious? Hugely. Impossible? Absolutely not.
With Gareth Bale spearheading their ambitions they will fancy their chances against any of those teams.
Victory in the last 16 will likely set up a last eight tie with Belgium. The Red Devils, for all their enviable individual talent, still have question marks over their temperament and ability to act cohesively – something that has been intrinsic to Wales’ form in the last two years.
Recent history is also in Wales’ favour. They drew 0-0 during Euro 2016 qualifying in Belgium before Bale earned a 1-0 victory at a rocking Cardiff City Stadium last June. Victory likely sets up a semi-final clash with Croatia and their embarrassment of midfield riches.
Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic versus Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and Joe Ledley is a mouthwatering prospect. Ante Cacic’s side impressed against Spain. Faced with beating them for a place in the final, however, is an eminently more achievable feat than beating one of the powerhouse nations.
Wales are not Germany, Spain, France, Italy or England. But what they have is a world class superstar in Bale, complimented by an able supporting cast who know he is the leading man, are comfortable with that and content to play their part – aware he can lead them to greatness.
Another significant factor is their key players have shown up in France. Bale is the tournament’s joint-leading scorer, netting in every group game. Ramsey and Allen have marauded across midfield, passing opponents off the pitch and unlocking defences. They’ve also worked tirelessly patrolling a back line for whom Ashley Williams has been a rock.
Questions were asked after the England defeat but the captain snapped back, tackling and blocking anything that moved against Russia. Even Neil Taylor chose the tournament to score his first goal in six years, evidence that every player is aware they stand on the verge of history and know they must seize the moment.
Win Saturday and they will emulate the side containing John Charles, Terry Medwin, and Jack Kelsey that reached the last eight at the 1958 World Cup.
A third reason for them to believe is the spirit within the squad, something harnessed by the late Gary Speed when he took charge. The man who started this journey died before his project was finished.
Despite taking on what seemed a poisoned chalice, Coleman has fostered an indomitable spirit among his squad. We’re about to see just how strong their spirit is.
The country’s adopted motto from qualifying of ‘Together Stronger’ will need to come to the fore now more than it ever has over the last two years.
A nation is daring to dream and who can blame them? The country has been waiting a long time for a sporting fairytale to come true. There’s no reason why it has to end just yet.
David De Gea’s alarmingly error-filled performance for Spain in Tuesday’s shock loss to Croatia has sparked an unsurprising crisis entirely of Vicente Del Bosque’s own making, because the manager’s handling of the goalkeeping position has been shambolic for a long time.
Two summers ago, you will recall, veteran keeper Iker Casillas followed a mixed season for Real Madrid by producing a horrendous display as Spain were crushed 5-1 by the Netherlands in the opening fixture of their World Cup title defence in Brazil.
Right then, on June 13, 2014, Del Bosque should have seen enough (as the rest of the world did) to come to the realisation that Casillas was on the wane and that De Gea, who had just been named Manchester United’s player of the season, was ready for a permanent promotion.
But Del Bosque didn’t make that obvious move, rejecting the chance to build for the future – at a time when the international retirements of Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso and David Villa would have made it easy – and allowing blind loyalty to force him to stick with Casillas.
Vicente del Bosque on criticism of David de Gea: “We can’t blame him for the goal. If we lose, we're all guilty." pic.twitter.com/k6gEgQNCjW— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) June 22, 2016
Except he didn’t even really do that, either. Instead, he embarked upon a truncated period of goalkeeper rotation, with Casillas starting seven games in the European Championship qualifying campaign while De Gea was selected for the other three.
Who was first choice? Nobody knew, including – it appears – Del Bosque, who continued to play a bizarre game of goalkeeping eeny-meeny-miny-mo throughout the build-up to the Euros.
Casillas started in friendlies against Bosnia-Herzegovina and South Korea to strengthen the theory that Del Bosque was preparing to stay faithful to the old veteran; De Gea was picked for the final warm-up game against Georgia to suggest that he would get the nod, only for the water to be further muddied as the Georgians scored with their only shot on target to claim a shock win.
Throughout this period, Del Bosque’s public (and, we can only assume, private) pronouncements on the debate were as vague and ambiguous as possible, making it clear that he would never, even under torture, reveal his decision over the starter until – ludicrously – the very day of the opening Euros contest against the Czech Republic.
Why? What on earth was the point of such secrecy? Especially in a position which relies so much on confidence – the kind of confidence which has now been drained from De Gea by spending so long waiting and wondering.
On Tuesday night, De Gea looked nervous, ill at ease, and mentally unwilling to command his defence with the cool authority he has gradually become accustomed to wielding at Old Trafford.
Rather than being in charge of his back four and his own performance, two years of dithering from the manager led to a dithering performance from De Gea. That is not surprising and it is no wonder he was nervous.
Now, preparing to face Italy, he will be plain terrified, knowing that his every move will be dissected in the minutest of details – hardly the best way to boost his confidence after a shaky display. And the manager is entirely to blame.
Del Bosque’s refusal to decisively address Spain’s great goalkeeping debate could even result in his team being dumped out of the competition in the last 16 – and if that happens, it will be nobody’s fault but his own.
Belgium beat Sweden 1-0 in the Stade de Nice on Wednesday night to book their place in the Last 16 of Euro 2016, but in the process called time on the international career of Zlatan Ibrahimovic as Sweden exited the tournament.
Despite the Red Devils win and progression in the competition, most of the post-game reaction focused on the retiring Swede’s contribution at this level.
Sport360 rounds-up the best of the post-game reaction:
“They had to open up, so that’s why we defended a bit deeper. We stuck to our plan. Both teams attacked and tactically we were better on the counter. It must have been a difficult watch for people with heart problems.
“I said bravo to Zlatan Ibrahimović for his career. I was a player myself and know how difficult it is when you finish with the national team. You have to be careful with him because he is very intelligent. Sometimes he drops deep and is then one on one against a central defender.
“They were obliged to open up and if you do that against us you will be punished. Six points from nine is very positive and since the defeat by Italy we have been very good.”
“We were talking before the game about the honour of representing Sweden and of being here, but I couldn’t have asked for much more from my players. I’m proud of them, even though we lost.
“We had some chances and then Belgium scored at the end. Our last couple of games weren’t too bad, but unfortunately we couldn’t take our opportunities.
“I hoped Zlatan would have had a better finish. The same goes for [Andreas] Isaksson and [Kim] Källström, who have been very good for a long time and who are also ending their Sweden careers.
“Unearthing a new Zlatan? No, he is special, he is unique. I don’t think that in a small country like Sweden you will find another player like him.”
“Zlatan Ibrahimović has done a lot of great things in his career and would have wanted to go further here. Our objective was to qualify, but unfortunately he is now eliminated. He will remain a great player and still has a lot to offer at club level.
“It was a difficult match, complicated for our defenders. In the first half we had some possession and created chances. Nainggolan scored an important goal and from then on we had to manage the game.”