Wales Knocks out Belgium as Stunning Upsets Continue
PARIS – Honour has been restored to British soccer.
Following days of pundits telling us that British — English, specifically — football is undoubtedly in decline, Wales pulled off another remarkable result in one of the wildest weeks in European Championship history.
Despite being sizable underdogs, the Dragons saw off a Belgian side loaded with top attacking players dubbed their country’s “Golden Generation.” Fool’s gold, perhaps. Marc Wilmots’ side was lacking throughout Wales’ 3-1 win in Lille Friday night.
Against all odds, a group of Welshmen — a team with few notable names — finds itself in the last four with a matchup against struggling Portugal, a side that still hasn’t won a match in regulation at this tournament.
It’s disrespectful to Wales, maybe, that much of the focus will be on a Belgian side that once again came up short at a major tournament. They lost at this stage two years ago in Brazil, as well, falling to the eventual World Cup runners-up.
That the Red Devils couldn’t hold an early first-half lead is all the more damning. Radja Nainggolan’s thunderous strike from distance failed to hold up against a Welsh side that continues to defy the odds at this tournament.
Welsh man-mountain Ashley Williams found an equalizer a quarter-hour later from a corner, leading Belgium completely capitulating the rest of the way.
How little-known Hal Robson-Kanu shook three Belgian defenders before scoring just after halftime is inexplicable. An unmarked Sam Vokes added to Belgium’s misery, rising to meet a cross with minutes remaining.
“We didn’t just smash, bang and wallop,” Welsh manager Chris Coleman said. “We took the game to Belgium for long periods. We kept possession and did very well. We were like soldiers. I thought our performance was fantastic.”
It was a goal that epitomized Belgian concerns entering Euro 2016. Vokes was untouched as he waltzed into the penalty area, putting an unobstructed header past Thibaut Courtois to send Welsh fans into pandemonium.
There are excuses aplenty. Wilmots’ side has been without centreback Vincent Kompany from the beginning and defender Thomas Vermaelen missed out due to suspension. Montreal Impact centreback Laurent Ciman replaced neither.
“We were unfortunate having players injured before the tournament,” Wilmots said. “What I’m sure is the players will learn from tonight because you always learn from tough times. It’s not all lost.”
Friday night’s quarterfinal not only was an unbelievable achievement for a Welsh side that lost to England earlier in this tournament. It was a lesson that attacking prowess is easily neutralized by defensive frailties at the opposite end.
The game-winner was particularly ridiculous. Robson-Kanu had his back to goal before a simple turn send three Belgian defenders in the wrong direction. Apparently Belgium’s “Golden Generation” weren’t taught to properly double-team or defend.
In the end, Wales simply had more balance on a night that wasn’t about run-and-gun Premier League-style football. It was about defending as a collective and taking your chances — something Wales has done all tournament.
“Five of their eight goals they’ve scored have come off counter-attacks,” Coleman added. “So you know if you lose it, and you have too many bodies forward, they’re going to hit you.”
However there are problems for Chris Coleman’s side moving forward. Wales will be without midfielder Aaron Ramsey next week in Lyon after the play-making midfielder picked up his second caution of the tournament.
As he’s been all Euro, the Arsenal man was imperative for Wales from start to finish Friday night, connecting passes all over the pitch while being disruptive whenever Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyn pushed forward towards goal.
Moving forward, this is a Welsh side you simply can’t pick against after watching them exhaust the number of ways you can win a fixture. They might even be even money heading into next Wednesday semifinal against Portugal.
It’s Cristiano Ronaldo versus Gareth Bale, who continues to say all the right things at this tournament. His pot shots against England were backed up by results before he referred to Wales as Belgium’s “bogey team”.
He should probably continue making predictions and off-the-cuff remarks ahead of a massive matchup against his Real Madrid teammate, who he said this week he still hasn’t spoken with, unsurprisingly.
As for all the hullabaloo regarding downtrodden English football, it turns out things aren’t as bad as they seemed.
It just took a group of little-known Welshmen to calm the hysteria and make people realize the British game isn’t in such a bad place.
WELSH MANAGER BEMOANS ‘TOUGH’ RULE
As if Wales’ run to the Euro 2016 semifinals wasn’t unlikely enough, Chris Coleman’s side will continue without its top midfielder.
Play-making midfielder Aaron Ramsey will miss next week’s semifinal against Portugal after picking up a caution during Friday night’s 3-1 win over Belgium. It was his second caution prior to the semifinals, earning him a one-game suspension.
“I’m gutted for Aaron,” the Welsh manager said. “He has been outstanding in this tournament. He’s obviously gutted.
“But we had to do what we had to do to get through. If you have to take one for the team, so be it. Aaron has done that. So has Ben Davis.
“It’s really disappointing for both players because they deserve as much as anybody to be in the semifinal. Both of them have been outstanding.”
There are calls for UEFA to change the rule, which was implemented to promote a more free-flowing game.
“It’s a bit tough I think,” Coleman added. “At this level, when there’s so much pressure on the players, two yellow cards in five games is kind of a bit tight and tough.”