Wales confirmed themselves as the cinderella act of UEFA EURO 2016 with a 3-1 quarter-final victory over a much-touted Belgium side.
Chris Coleman’s unheralded outfit bounced back from Radja Nainggolen’s fine 13th-minute opener to level through Ashley Williams and then streak clear with Hal Robson-Kanu and Sam Vokes goals that bookended a scarcely believable second-half story.
It was Belgium who had begun this remarkable game writing history, 21-year-olds Jason Denayer and Jordan Lukaku making Marc Wilmots’s team – average age 24 years and 242 days – the youngest starting XI at a EURO since 1968.
A bright opening reflected these bright complexions. Wayne Hennessey blocked from Yannick Carrasco, Neil Taylor from Thomas Meunier and Joe Allen from Eden Hazard. There was no getting in the way of Nainggolan’s 13th-minute thunderbolt, his second goal of the finals.
In reply Gareth Bale ruffled the side netting and Thibaut Courtois saved from Neil Taylor. Captain redoubtable Williams made the third attempt count, bullet-heading Aaron Ramsey’s corner. At 1-1, Bale, Ramsey and Williams all threatened.
Both countries wanted to improve on 1-0 defeats in their previous quarter-final outings – Belgium’s 2014 reverse to Argentina, Wales’s loss to Brazil 58 summers ago. Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard nearly helped achieve this aim soon after half-time. However, they were off target and, with a splendid strike that was half his invention and half Ramsey’s, Robson-Kanu wasn’t.
Williams’s scissor kick underlined the underdogs’ burgeoning confidence. Marouane Fellaini might have put a dent in it with two headers – the second almost falling for Axel Witsel. Instead the head of substitute Vokes, from Chris Gunter’s cross, conclusively denied Belgium a first EURO semi-final since 1980 and sent Wales into dreamland.
Man of the match: Hal Robson-Kanu (Wales)
Not only did Robson-Kanu put Wales ahead in sensational fashion, he also had two further attempts, created two chances for team-mates and won two aerial duels. It was a tireless, unselfish display.
Welsh history boys
Times have changed since 1958 and Wales’s only past major tournament. On alighting at Swansea train station, having lost their quarter-final in Sweden to a solitary Pelé effort (the only knockout goal conceded by the Welsh until tonight), Jimmy Murphy’s team were famously asked if they had been on holiday. If Wales’s exploits in France are resonating more immediately in the 24-hour news culture, what Coleman’s side will come to share with their now-esteemed predecessors is to be revered for decades by a grateful Welsh sporting nation.
Belgium caught short
Wilmots said Jan Vertonghen’s eve-of-match ankle ligament injury was a “sporting tragedy” for this Belgian squad’s most-capped player. Vertonghen’s KO further disrupted a Red Devils defence already shorn of suspended Thomas Vermaelen as well as pre-finals casualties Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Lombaerts. Wilmots also said that opportunities arise out of adversity; unfortunately for the coach, it was Wales who took theirs against his depleted back line.
These sides were well-acquainted having met four times across EURO and 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying – each winning one, drawing two and losing the other. Wales actually finished second bottom of that World Cup group. Indeed those were the “dark times” cited by Coleman which helped forge the team spirit so central to this unprecedented Welsh push. Wales’s strong characters again stood tall at the Stade Pierre Mauroy, led as ever by inspirational skipper Williams, for whom the equaliser was a first goal in 39 competitive internationals.