This was the game when Euro 2016 burst to life. Wales came from behind to eliminate pre-match favorite Belgium 3-1 and set up a mouth-watering semifinal clash against Portugal. It's Cristiano Ronaldo versus Gareth Bale in a battle of Real Madrid superstars. It's a side in its sixth semifinal since 2000 versus one in its first ever. And if Portugal rode its luck a little in edging past Poland on penalties Thursday, there can be no doubts that Wales deserves its place in history after a compelling night in Lille.
Wales’s unlikely hero was Hal Robson-Kanu, the free agent whose Cruyff turn left Thomas Meunier, Jason Denayer and Marouane Fellaini looking like cartoon characters who had fallen off a cliff and were scrambling to get back. The Welsh forward had time to pick his spot and drive the ball past Thibaut Courtois to put Wales ahead 2-1. There should be no shortage of clubs interested in him now.
Substitute Sam Vokes sealed the win with a stunning glancing header, his first international goal outside Wales since 2009.
Robson-Kanu’s selection was one of many masterstrokes pulled by Wales coach Chris Coleman, whose well-drilled side did not wilt under pressure.
Twice it faced immense adversity; after Radja Nainggolan’s superb early goal stunned the minnow, and then at the start of the second half, when Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne peppered Wayne Hennessey’s goal with sustained attacks that were repelled.
In between, Wales captain Ashley Williams did his bit, heading home unmarked from Aaron Ramsey’s corner. That equalizer was deserved, and the celebration, as the skipper ran to his coach and the whole team bundled on top, showed a spirit that looked lacking in the Belgium side.
Just as against Hungary, Belgium’s defense was all at sea–this time, Wales was able to take advantage. Huge question marks will be asked of Belgium coach Marc Wilmots, who has once again made his fantastically talented team look like less than the sum of their parts.
What was Belgium’s game plan after it went ahead? Why was Wales allowed such an easy foothold in midfield after that opening goal? Why did Toby Alderweireld start on the right of central defense, exposing rookies Jason Denayer and Jordan Lukaku on the left side of defense at which the Welsh forwards could run? What kind of organization goes on at set pieces, when Williams is unmarked from a corner and De Bruyne leaves the post he is guarding for the goal to drift past?
Belgium’s injured captain Vincent Kompany said he did not like the "golden generation" tag that has followed this team. Lucky for him, it won’t be around much longer.
As for Coleman, every decision paid off. Williams somehow recovered from his shoulder injury to be the decisive leader that embodies this team (although he was fortunate not to conceded a late penalty for a foul on Nainggolan). Ramsey has been one of the outstanding midfielders in the tournament, and it’s a real pity his needless handball earned him a second yellow card and rules him out of the semifinal. (The question that will follow Ramsey the rest of the summer will be why has Arsene Wenger not gotten this form out of him before, and can he do it next season?)
Then there was the substitution, Vokes scoring a marvelous goal, while Fellaini, Belgium’s halftime sub, headed wide from close range at 2-1 down.
“We knew it would be tough,” Coleman said after the game. “We have to pass the football as that gets the best out of the team. All the players in the team can pass and that’s what we tried to do. We stuck to our strengths and showed our identity. We wanted to show people we can be an offensive team, and I think we did that.”
Coleman has gotten the best out of his players, but has also had crucial assistance from his bosses. After its failure to make the 2014 World Cup, the Welsh FA adopted a more progressive approach.
At the heart of this is a sophisticated coaching and analytics software system called Globall Coach, which analyzes opponents’ formations through different parts of the pitch, and delivers tactical instructions, all via visual animation.
Wales’s win rate is up 25% since using the system.
“Globall Coach has been essential for us in our preparation for matches at Euro 2016," said Osian Roberts, the Welsh FA’s technical director. “It allows us as coaches to illustrate the details required to the players.”
It was obvious that Wales knew which areas to attack as a team. Belgium, on the other hand, resorted to relying on individual brilliance, which, ultimately, never came.
Wales has waited 58 years to appear in an international tournament. Bale may be the superstar in the team, but the hero against Belgium was the whole squad, not one individual. Coleman has created that aura, and in the end, it was the difference between the two teams.
“Four years ago I was as far away from this as you can imagine,” Coleman added. “But I’m not afraid to fail. So my message is: don't be afraid.”