Wales stormed through to the knockout phase of their first UEFA EURO finals as they eliminated Russia and won Group B into the bargain.
No team in France had been as quick out the traps as Wales in their first two games and they were at it again in Toulouse, Gareth Bale forcing Igor Akinfeev into an early save. Come the 11th-minute mark they led as Joe Allen’s perfect ball sent Aaron Ramsey clear to calmly chip over the challenging Akinfeev and in.
If the Wales fans were joyful then, nine minutes later they reached new stratospheric heights of elation when Neil Taylor, who had not scored a competitive goal above England’s fifth tier – six years ago – was played in by a deflected Bale pass and poked the ball past Akinfeev at the second attempt. It could have been more before the interval, with Akinfeev denying Sam Vokes, preferred to Hal Robson-Kanu and Jonathan Williams up front with Bale.
At half-time Leonid Slutski tried swapping the Berezutski twins – having an unhappy 34th birthday – as Aleksei replaced Vasili. But there was little Russia could do to stem the Welsh tide, and Bale made it three with the outside of his boot. With England held by Slovakia, Chris Coleman’s side are, in the words their supporters constantly chanted, “top of the league”.
Man of the match: Aaron Ramsey (Wales)
Not for the first time in these finals, Ramsey was the real engine room of the Wales attack and the way he took his goal set in motion what happened tonight at the Stadium de Toulouse. The blond bleach seems to have given him extra powers; move over Super Victor!
Wales combine passion and poise
Whereas most teams have been content to start matches cautiously in this tournament, Wales have gone for it from the off and have netted four first-half goals, twice as many as any other side. Bale is the star yet, as so many have written and said about this squad, it is far from just him. Witness how Allen and the tireless Ramsey combined for the first goal, the graft put in by Taylor and Joe Ledley’s incredible recovery from a leg fracture just a few weeks ago to start tonight. Remember, only one man has ever scored a knockout finals goal against Wales – Pelé.
Taylor needed two bites at the cherry to hit the target, but consider this: he had last scored in April 2010, for Wrexham in an English fifth-tier fixture at Grays Athletic. He had not got a goal in 65 previous internationals, not just for Wales seniors but the Under-21, youth and semi-professionals as well as Great Britain’s 2012 Olympic team. Not to mention his never having scored in 156 appearances for Swansea City since joining six years ago. One incredible story among many for Wales.
Russia must regroup
For the seventh time in eight major championships that they have reached since the end of the Soviet Union, Russia are out in the group stage. In qualifying Slutski was able to take over the squad and turn around a faltering campaign but, save for the late equaliser against England in Marseille, there have been no consolations here. They at least have two targets to aim for: hosting the FIFA Confederations Cup next summer and the FIFA World Cup the year after that. Preparations begin now.