Two words: Holy Cow!
Wales stunned Belgium 3-1 in the Eurocup quarterfinals on Friday, advancing to the semifinals and earning a date with Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal.
Both Belgium and Wales came out of the tunnel in today's quarterfinal matchup like their hair was on fire, hammering each other up and down the pitch for most of the first 25 minutes. It would be Belgium that would reap the first rewards when Radja Nainggolan ripped a shot in the 7th minute from outside the box, a lightning bolt into the top left corner to put the Belgians up 1-0. The goal was the fruit of Belgium's concerted effort to exploit the space Wales left open on the wings, a result of the unorthodox 3-5-2 formation the Welsh deploy.
If you had thought that goal would make Wales slow things down, you would have been sincerely mistaken. After the strike, Wales enjoyed a dragon's share (pun intended) of possession for the rest of the first half. Even after scoring a goal, the Belgians seemed not to believe in their ability to take over the game; in fact, it was the Welsh who came out pressing, putting the Belgians on their collective back heels.
Welsh tenacity would payoff in the 31st minute. Team Captain Ashley Williams strolled into the box unmarked on a corner and, with no one marking him, he would head a ball from Aaron Ramsey (still don’t like his hair) into the bottom of the net, bringing the game back to level. And while the teams walked into the dressing rooms at 1-1, the Welsh seemed to be the more threatening side.
The Welsh edged the Belgians in possession in the first half over all: 55% to 45%.
While the Belgians came out much stronger to start the second half (owning the...dragon's share of the possession and chances) Wales would draw first blood. A beautiful run by Aaron Ramsey in the 55th minute allowed the Welsh playmaker to connect with Robson-Kanu who put on a clinic--a nice head and body deke allowed the Welsh number 9 to get enough space to entirely lose his two markers, spin and slot home the 2-1 past Thibaut Courtois. The Welshmen would seal the deal in the 85th minute with a Sam Vokes header after a brilliant combination counter caught the Belgians out.
(I actually missed this goal because Dish.) Anyways here's a replay.
This would put them up 3-1, keeping the game out of reach for the Belgians. This is the first time in the history of Welsh football they have reached the final four of a major tournament. The last time they played in a major tournament was 58 years ago. Wales are now headed to the semi final.
It was a tale of two Bales. His best half was in the first, in the second he was pretty subdued and ineffective for the most part in the attacking third. He created a number of chances in the first half, running circles around the Belgian back line; in fact, a few long, powerful runs were so classic Bale that a number of people called up his breakout match against Maicon and Inter Milan while he was still at Spurs in the Champions League.
AND BALE RESPONDS! Huge run for the Welshman from 60 yards back. He’s running CIRCLES around Belgium, owning them like he owned Maicon.— Managing Madrid (@managingmadrid) July 1, 2016
Wow that was so nearly a San Siro, Taxi for Maicon Special— Phil Kitromilides (@PhilKitro) July 1, 2016
The second half saw him dropping back into the midfield, leaving Arsenal playmaker Aaron Ramsey free to take over some of the offensive chores.
While he did have a chance created, 12-20 passing? That’s very un-Bale like. Luckily Ramsey and company had his back.
One of the problems was he was getting the ball deep. More than once I noticed he was back more in the midfield.
This matches up pretty well with what his heat map was showing.
Bale was pretty much given license to roam throughout the match, driving the Belgian defense mad trying to keep track of him. Which opened things up for his teammates and ultimately leading to the win and a date with Portugal.
This would rank up there with one of his worse matches of the tournament. But bad for Bale is still good for most players. But we know Bale, and we can admit it wasn't a shining example of what he can do on the pitch (at least in the second half), and so does Wales. Belgium at times let their guard down because they were more focused on what Bale was doing and not what was going on right in front of them. Which left the others lots of space in which to operate.
In case you were curious, he had a 72% passing, which is very un-Bale like to me.
Player Rating: 7.5
Things I learned
Wales is one hell of a TEAM, that’s what makes me excited about this Wales squad. When one cog doesn’t have a great night - two more step up to close the gap. You saw this tonight.
Wales were unbeaten against Belgium in their EURO 2016 qualifiers, with Chris Coleman's men winning 1-0 in Cardiff after a goalless draw in Brussels.
Wales and Belgium's last three encounters have produced only three goals.
Wales have reached the knockout stages in their two major tournament participations (World Cup 1958, EURO 2016). In 1958, they were knocked out in the quarter-finals by eventual winners Brazil.
Wales have kept two consecutive clean sheets for the first time in their major tournament history.