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.
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