This tournament has been one in which underdogs have flourished, and Wales are now one game away from the final of Euro 2016 after a 3-1 victory over Belgium in Lille. Belgium came into the match in great form following a 4-0 thrashing of Hungary, and they asserted themselves in the opening stanza. Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne were both closely checked by the Welsh defence, and Yannick Carrasco was able to flourish on the right wing, finding plenty of space and creating some excellent chances. Belgium should have scored early on after a chaotic piece of play in which three shots were blocked by the Welsh in rapid succession. Carrasco started it when the ball fell to him out the back, but Wayne Hennessey was ready to make the save. Up stepped Thomas Meunier, whose shot passed Hennessey only to be blocked by James Chester, who was sitting in the goalmouth with plenty of support from his teammates. The danger hadn’t passed, and Neil Taylor was forced to deflect Hazard’s attempt over the bar for a corner.
The Welsh were under pressure, and soon they cracked. It was Radja Nainggolan who scored the goal with a thunderous one-time strike from long range, but it was Hazard who was at the centre of the set up play. The midfield maestro drove Joe Allen back towards the box before playing a look away pass to Nainggolan, who had plenty of space available to him. The shot found the top corner, and Hennessey could only manage to get his fingertips on the ball as it found the back of the net. The Welsh regrouped and consolidated, but all they had to show for it was an excellent volley from Taylor which Thibaut Courtois had done very well to save. Gareth Bale had been kept quiet, and the Belgians still looked in control. Then Ashley Williams scored, and the game was turned on its head.
The goal came from a corner, with Aaron Ramsey putting an excellent ball into the centre of the box for Williams, who converted easily. Jordan Lukaku was caught out of position as the ball sailed over his head, and the Welsh captain did not have to do much to drive his header past Courtois into the back of the net. The Welsh were back on level footing, and they looked far more comfortable as the first half drew to a close. Ramsey was everywhere, and his run around the ground was putting Belgium under plenty of pressure. Belgium wrested control back away from the Welsh after the break, and they soon had the defence on the back foot. Meunier looked dangerous when he pushed forward in attack, and Romelu Lukaku was unable to capitalise on a perfectly placed cross from the Belgian right back. Hazard threatened to score when he weaved through the Welsh defence to find space, but his shot was drilled across goal. Then Wales scored again, taking the momentum away from Belgium and putting the underdogs firmly in the driver’s seat.
The goal came out of nowhere, with Ramsey the catalyst. Bale’s long ball from inside his own half found Ramsey on the wing, and the Arsenal star took a brilliant touch to control the ball. He looked inside and crossed for Hal Robson-Kanu, who twisted and turned to put himself one-on-one with Courtois. He worked Meunier out of the contest, and Jason Denayer ran past him in an attempt to win the ball back. Marouane Fellaini was out of position, and Robson-Kanu was able to beat Courtois with ease.
Belgium pushed for the leveller, but the Welsh defence was very effective and the leveller was not going to come. Fellaini had some great chances after some strong set-up play, but he was all bark and no bite, promising much but failing to deliver. The Welsh put the icing on the cake with less than five minutes to go through Sam Vokes, who connected with a brilliant cross from Chris Gunter to guide the ball into the back of the net. It was a brilliant victory, one that was hard-fought but classy at the same time. The Welsh played with determination and had the skill to back it up, and they thoroughly deserve their spot in the last four, underdogs or not.
Lille – Stade Pierre-Mauroy
Wales 3 (A Williams 31, Robson-Kanu 55, Vokes 86)
Belgium 1 (Nainggolan 13)
Referee: Damir Skomina (Svn)
Wales (3-5-2): Hennessey – Chester, A Williams, Davies; Gunter, Allen, Ledley (King 78), Ramsey (Collins 90), Taylor; Robson-Kanu (Vokes 80), Bale.
Belgium (4-2-3-1): Courtois – Meunier, Alderweireld, Denayer, J Lukaku (Mertens 75); Nainggolan, Witsel; Carrasco (Fellaini 46), de Bruyne, Hazard; R Lukaku (Batshuayi 83)
1. Aaron Ramsey (Wales)
Ramsey provided two assists and was the life of the Welsh team, buzzing with energy for ninety minutes and causing plenty of problems for the Belgians. He was at the centre of one of the greatest injustices of the night when he was booked for an innocuous handball, and while he will miss the semi-final because of the booking he can take some comfort from his brilliant performance.
2. Ashley Williams (Wales)
Williams was very solid at the heart of the Welsh defence, and he showed great leadership in continually warding off the Belgians. He scored the equaliser for Wales and he proved to be a huge threat for the Belgian defence, getting into dangerous positions and finding space at set pieces. He played well, and will continue to add strength to the Welsh defence in the semi-finals.
3. Thomas Meunier (Belgium)
Meunier played an excellent game from right back, pushing forward well and asking plenty of questions of the Welsh with his probing crosses. He was able to drift between attack and defence effortlessly, and he was Belgium’s best on the night. He was mostly solid from a defensive standpoint, and he didn’t let much through.
4. Hal Robson-Kanu (Wales)
Robson-Kanu was a big threat throughout with his pace and ability to find space in dangerous positions. He outmanoeuvred three Belgian players to score the goal that put the Welsh ahead, and a goal was just reward for a very strong effort throughout the game. He played well, and should keep his place for the semi-finals.
5. Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium)
De Bruyne had a strong game in attacking midfield, and he was at the centre of Belgium’s attack. He created some excellent chances through his set pieces, and he was able to open up plenty of space for both himself and his teammates. He played well, and he can hold his head high despite a disappointing loss.