An emotional Ashley Williams admitted he is still pinching himself at Wales’ incredible run to the Euro 2016 semi-finals after captaining his side to victory over Belgium.
Williams led by example in Lille, scoring Wales’ equaliser before keeping Belgium’s attack at bay to help secure a 3-1 victory and set up a clash with Portugal.
He will pit his wits in the last four against Cristiano Ronaldo, who played in his first European Championship as a teenager in 2004. Back then, Williams had just finished a League One season with Stockport, and the Wales skipper recognises that his progress is the stuff of fairytale.
“It’s difficult to explain, just emotional really,” Williams, who had tears in his eyes at the end of the quarter-final, told Sport360.
“I haven’t been emotional on a football pitch very often but when the final whistle went it was just a feeling of relief, happiness pride.”
“I am still pinching myself. Especially tonight. It does feel weird that there will be four teams left and we will be one of them and we’ve got a chance to get to the final. It’s nice. We’ve been through a lot as a team and we’ve worked ever so hard to get here.
“Just getting here was enough, getting out the group would have been enough. But we’re still here, we’re still together and still enjoying us. We played very well tonight and I think we deserved the win. From the back it’s nice to watch the unbelievable players in front of you.”
One of those players is Gareth Bale, who will come up against Real Madrid team-mates Ronaldo and Pepe in Lille. Williams praised the influence of Bale both on and off the pitch, insisting the Welshman is a “humble guy” despite his superstar status.
“I wouldn’t swap Gareth for anyone. He’s unbelievable,” said Williams. “What you see on the pitch is good enough but for me as captain, to have him in the group is a pleasure. The way he conducts himself around the camp and the way he helps everybody.
“He’s a humble guy, he’s down to earth and he gets on with it. He’s one of the lads and I think he enjoys coming away with us. He’s not this big star Gareth Bale, no-one looks at him or treats him differently.”
Right on cue, Bale appears behind his captain, chanting “we’re in the semi-final,” with the laughing Williams admitting that a clash between the Wales forward and Ronaldo will likely be the talk of the town ahead of the match in Lyon.
“The semi-final will be built up as Bale vs Ronaldo but that’s the beauty of football, that’s for people to enjoy. The neutrals and the fans of those two players will enjoy it. You’ve got two of the best players in the world playing together on the same pitch in the semi-final of the Euros – as it should be.
“But for us it’s just about Wales again, as it has been the whole time. We’ll be concentrating on what we need to do to win the game. We’ll recover from this game in the next couple of days and we’ll move forward to Portugal.”
Williams has never previously faced Ronaldo, only achieving promotion to the Premier League with Swansea after he left Manchester United. On a personal level, the Wales captain is excited about the prospect of testing himself against the world’s best.
“I’ve never played against him before and he’s obviously been one of the best for a number of years. I watched the game last night, he’s an unbelievable player and he gets a lot of stick but everyone respects him and knows how good he is.
“It’s another challenge for me, but it’s not something I’ll be nervous about. As a back three or as a team we will look to overcome that challenge. All the games you play in the Euros you’ve got to expect to play against top players.”
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