LILLE, France — Ahead of the biggest match of his career, Wales captain Ashley Williams had described his team-mates as a “band of brothers”, willing to fight together to the end in this extraordinary European Championship campaign.
And on a blustery battlefield Flanders, through the driving rain and against the odds, Williams led those brothers in arms to a valiant victory.
Wales fought for every ball, stretched ever sinew and expended every ounce of energy as they defied their debutants’ status to defeat Belgium and into the Euro 2016 semi-finals.
“Don’t take me home,” the Welsh fans have sung throughout their time in France. The players just keep on obliging.
It had looked so unlikely when Radja Nainggolan’s thunderous strike secured an early lead. The Stade Pierre Mauroy erupted, its obvious Belgian bias unsurprising given the close proximity of Lille to the border; it is just 30 minutes by train to Brussels, Belgium’s capital.
Wales appeared to have finally met their match, but this team are made of stern stuff. Sterner than a certain team of near-neighbours, that’s for sure. While England’s players so often appear paralysed by the fear of failure, these Welshmen prosper at the prospect of victory.
Their skipper Williams embodies that indomitable spirit. A serious shoulder injury against Northern Ireland would have ruled lesser men out, but Williams – who headed home the equaliser against Belgium – was never going to miss the biggest match in his nation’s history. Speaking after the game, his arm in a sling, the centre-back looked every inch a wounded soldier.
“It’s fine, this is just to support it and take the pressure off,” said Williams, his sentiment reminding a little of the ‘just a flesh wound’ scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “It’s all credit to the medical staff and it’s not nearly as bad as it was after the Northern Ireland game. Once you get into the game it’s fine, I had no issues at all.”
Each Wales player in turn spoke about the value of “hard work” – their oft-repeated social mantra of #TogetherStronger has certainly rung true time and again in France. But this was not a performance built only on defensive stability. It was not, as Chris Coleman put it, a “smash, bang, wallop win”. It was a resounding result that accurately reflected Wales’ willingness to attack and play, to borrow another Coleman-ism, “the Wales way”.
That identity has become clear at Euro 2016. It was abandoned in the defeat to England but that game aside, Wales have stayed true to their philosophy. Defensive solidity is of course the foundation but it is complemented by the attacking ambition of a pair of marauding full-backs, plus a world class outlet in Gareth Bale and a midfield triumvirate that is as capable of creating as it is of closing down.
Aaron Ramsey was particularly magnificent against Belgium, passing and harassing in equal measure. Such was his unrelenting approach, team-mate Gareth Bale at one stage gestured for him to ‘calm down’ as he feverishly pressured the Belgium centre-backs in possession. That he will miss the semi-final against Portugal after picking up a trivial yellow card for accidental handball is a great shame.
“I’m sure it [missing the semi-final] will sink in soon,” Ramsey told reporters. “I’m obviously really gutted but I’ll be right behind my team and cheering them on. I’ll be kicking every ball and shouting – I’ll be right in the mix. I’m confident there will be one more game for me in the final.”
For Belgium, there are no more second chances. Just as at the 2014 World Cup, coach Marc Wilmots has overseen a major under-achievement here in France and it seemed he saw it coming. “Wales are by no means a bête noir,” he said in his pre-match press conference. “They are dangerous.”
Unfortunately for Wilmots, his makeshift defence just couldn’t handle that threat. With Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen suspended and injured respectively, youngsters Jason Denayer and Jordan Lukaku came into the team. Denayer’s only game in qualifying had come in the 1-0 defeat to Wales in Cardiff and he struggled again against the brute force of Hal Robson-Kanu, hailed by his own coach as a “physical specimen” and “defender’s nightmare” after he capped a man of the match display with a goal that showed shades of Johann Cruyff.
“I’m not a magician,” Wilmot said defensively after the match. “You can’t simply replace experience. Our defence had an average age of 23.” He was right of course, though by the same token it was Wilmots who chose to put his faith in those players. Why put them in the squad if they are not ready to be called upon when needed?
Despite his comments and the naivety shown by his fledgling back-line, Wilmots did insist that he and not the players should take the fall. Whether that fall is on to his sword remains to be seen, though Belgian and Dutch journalists both pushed him hard to state whether he would be the right man to lead this group of players to the 2018 World Cup. “I won’t make my decision straight after the game,” Wilmots said. “The adrenaline is running. I said I’d decide after Euro 2016 and I stick by that.”
As Belgium go back to the drawing board, Wales now wonder whether an impossible dream could become a reality. Both Coleman and Williams toed the party line post-match with their insistence on focusing only on the next match against Portugal. But centre-back James Chester momentarily let his guard slip. Asked whether Wales can do the unthinkable and go all the way, the ebullient ex-Manchester United defender said what his team-mates and fans are surely thinking: a resounding “yes”.
Know more about Sport360 Application