Euro 2016: Wales set for ‘biggest game’ since 1958 World Cup
Wales’ Euro 2016 quarter-final against Belgium on Friday is their biggest match since the 1958 World Cup, according to manager Chris Coleman.
Wales have not reached a major finals since they were beaten by Brazil in the last eight 58 years ago.
Ranked 26th in the world, Coleman’s team take on a side 24 places above them – with a semi-final in Lyon on 6 July the reward for the winners.
“We know what’s at stake – it’s a fantastic pressure to have,” he said.
“Since that 1958 quarter-final, we have to put this down as the biggest game our country’s ever been involved in.
“People have already said: ‘Wales can’t lose, they weren’t meant to get to the quarter-final, they’re the underdogs.’ This definitely isn’t the way we see it.”
Wales are in the habit of defying the odds as a team whose unity – and sprinkling of star quality in the form of Real Madrid forward Gareth Bale and Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey – compensates for a squad lacking the strength in depth of their illustrious opponents.
Belgium, who were in the same qualifying group as Wales, lost their opening game 2-0 against Italy but have won their three matches since and have several Premier League players in their squad, including Chelsea winger Eden Hazard, Manchester City forward Kevin de Bruyne and Everton striker Romelu Lukaku.
“I’m not going to play the occasion down,” added Coleman, whose team lost to England before going on to win Group B and then defeating Northern Ireland in the last 16.
“I’m going to enjoy it and savour it – but we’ll only enjoy it when we perform.
“I don’t need to ham this game up. We are where we are, it is what it is. We’ve earned it.”
Determined to continue the adventure
It was possible to detect a hint of finality in the Football Association of Wales’ video thanking the people of Dinard, the quaint seaside town in Brittany which has been Wales’ home for Euro 2016, for their hospitality.
Paying tribute in Bretagne, French, Welsh and English, there was a faint sense of bidding farewell, perhaps mindful that Wales’ first European Championship campaign could be nearing its end.
However, a moment in the company of Wales’ players is enough to realise how determined they are to ensure their French adventure continues.
“We have done well to get this far, but when you are in the quarter-final of the tournament knowing if we can get it right there are great possibilities, it is different,” said Coleman.
“There is more football and more performances in this team.”
Wales fans set to be outnumbered
It is thought there will be about 20,000 Wales fans in Lille for the match.
But, with Lille just 10 miles from the Belgian border, it has been estimated there will be up to 150,000 Belgium fans making the trip.
This has led to concerns many ticketless Welsh fans may not even be able to get into the Lille fan zone, which holds 30,000. Paul Corkery, of the Football Supporters’ Federation Cymru, warned: “Once it’s full it’s shut.”
Belgium manager Marc Wilmots said his team will have home advantage, adding: “We have a team with a few worries. So it’s good to have a 12th man.”
In Wales, there are fan zones open on Friday in various locations, including Cardiff, Newport, Pontypridd and Anglesey.
A butcher in Cardiff has produced a special Euro Burger, while Neil Ward, the chief executive of the Football Association of Wales Trust, claimed the team’s progress has got even passionate rugby union fans talking about the side.
Are Wales Belgium’s bogey team?
Unbeaten in their past three meetings with Belgium, Bale has suggested Wales are a “bogey team” for the Red Devils, who are ranked second in the world and have scored eight goals without conceding in their past three games.
The 26-year-old does so with some justification, having scored the winning goal in their last encounter – a highly charged 1-0 victory for Wales at the Cardiff City Stadium in June 2015.
Coleman and his players have described that as the turning point of Wales’ Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, the moment they really started to believe they would end their 58-year wait for major tournament appearance.
Both teams have evolved since the match in Cardiff. Wales are revelling in their Euro 2016 adventure, sweeping into the last 16 with a spectacular demolition of Russia, then grinding out a nervous win over Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, Belgium – until now significantly less than the sum of their world-class individual parts – appear to be finally click into gear with a ruthless 4-0 second-round thrashing of Hungary.
“They won convincingly against Hungary and they looked good, but they don’t always play like they can and they make mistakes like anyone else,” said Coleman. “It is up to us to make sure that side comes out.”
Bale and Ramsey might grab most of the headlines but the importance of the Wales defence should not be underestimated.
Wales drew 1-1 in Brussels towards the end of their 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign thanks to excellent defensive foundations and ground out a goalless draw in the same city on their way to qualifying for Euro 2016.
“Whether that’s a back four, a back five or whatever, there’s never been a time going into a game with this manager that we’ve felt anything other than prepared,” said right-back Chris Gunter.
Gunter and fellow full-back Neil Taylor can often go unnoticed in the grand narrative of Wales’ recent achievements, but the side conceded just four goals in their 10 qualifiers and, at Euro 2016 itself, have kept clean sheets in their past two games.
Wales defence has been built around captain Ashley Williams in recent years, though it is two less celebrated players who have shone brightest in France: Ben Davies and James Chester.
Tottenham’s Davies made a crucial goalline clearance in the opening win over Slovakia and has been consistently impressive in possession on the left side of Wales’ three-man central defence.
Chester, meanwhile, has defied his status as a peripheral figure at West Brom with a string of solid displays.
The former Hull defender has made 14 tackles and 13 interceptions in his four appearances, while 88% of his 172 passes have been accurate.
Chester missed last year’s win in Cardiff through injury, but his presence in the goalless draw in Brussels means all five members of Wales’ defence – and goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey – have contributed to a clean sheet against Belgium.
Can Wales do it?
Confidence has been a commodity in rich supply at Wales’ training base in Dinard. No occasion, no matter how significant, looks like unsettling Coleman’s men.
They will be the underdogs against a Belgium side whose strength in depth is the envy of most teams in Europe.
However, that could suit Wales, who are at their most effective when counter-attacking with Bale and Ramsey allowed to roam.
They demonstrated against Northern Ireland how they can struggle to unlock deep-lying defences and, while Belgium will not be as naive and loose as Russia, they will want to seize the initiative.
“Belgium will play with imagination,” added Coleman. “They have got pace and power.
“When it is time to defend we will defend with our lives and when it is time to attack we will attack with our lives. If we do that Belgium will be in for a hell of a game.”
Source BBC NEWS
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