After producing one of the greatest team displays in recent international football memory and creating history against Belgium, more glory beckons for record-shattering Wales in three days’ time.
For the best part of six decades, every Welsh squad has been compared to the side which reached the quarter-finals of the 1958 World Cup – but this group is now in a class of their own. A first-ever semi-final has been achieved but this group believes, and rightly so, they can achieve even more. The Dragons are roaring and Portugal are next in the firing line.
Despite their enviable stockpile of individual weapons, Belgium could not match Wales for hunger, belief, spirit and having a coherent gameplan – attributes which have helped Wales visibly grow with every match in France.
The atmosphere surrounding Wales is something which was created by Gary Speed but has been forged by Chris Coleman.
It was Johan Cruyff who said: “Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.”
Coleman: "You dream about nights like this. You're never sure whether you're going to be good or lucky enough. It's indescribable" #WAL— Simon Peach (@SimonPeach) July 1, 2016
Like Belgian coach Marc Wilmots, Coleman is a limited manager; he is not a tactical genius or innovative strategist. He deploys a straightforward gameplan to defend and contain and then
hit teams on the counter with lightening quick attacks in which the intelligent passing of Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen, and pace of Gareth Bale and Hal Robson-Kanu – Wales’ very own Cruyff – are key.
However, unlike Wilmots, his players – due to the spirit fostered in the squad – understand and follow his instructions perfectly.
The opening goal against Belgium was ludicrously simple – pile a bunch of big bodies into a compact area and try to cause havoc. It worked so well the first time, with Ashley Williams left unmarked, they continued to utilise it and it caused an inexperienced and disorganised Belgium defence no end of problems. Identify an opponent’s weakness, and then exploit it.
Coleman deserves huge credit for getting the best out of his squad.
Sam Vokes, like his manager, has imperfections. What he does, he does well and when he came on for a tiring Robson-Kanu late on in Lille on Friday, he took his chance.
In the 3-5-2 system Coleman regularly employs, the tireless energy of wing-backs Neil Taylor and Chris Gunter is significant. Both are good defenders but while Swansea’s Taylor is adept at flowing forward as part of a fluid style of play used at club level, Reading full-back Gunter’s development as an attacking threat under Coleman has been impressive, highlighted by a penetrating run and superb cross for Vokes’ clinching goal.
Bale is undeniably Wales’ star man, but Ramsey has been their player of the tournament. Bale played his part against Belgium but Ramsey was scintillating, setting up Ashley Williams and Robson- Kanu. He’s been outstanding and progress to the last four must taste bittersweet after a yellow card that rules him out of the Portugal clash.
Spurs defender Ben Davies, another of Wales’ strongest performers so far, is also suspended.
"Don't be afraid to dream, and don't be afraid to fail" - Chris Coleman. Opposite of the "culture of fear" that Steven Gerrard referred to.— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) July 1, 2016
Jonny Williams and James Collins are likely to be their replacements and while their absences, particularly Ramsey’s, are a huge blow, the #TogetherStronger motto the team has adopted since 2016 qualification began remains a potent tool.
Various members of the Welsh camp have spoken of squad players, some of whom are yet to see a minute of action, being the glue which bonds this unit together.
Unlike Spain and particularly England, who are perhaps guilty of taking for granted the regularity of their appearances at major tournaments, Wales’ players realise just how precious playing on the big stage is. They have fed off the electric support of their fans through- out the last three weeks and they will need to rely on each other once more on Wednesday.
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