Italy hold no fear for Wales as they dare to dream again

Connor Roberts: ‘It’s a Wednesday night but pour yourself a nice glass of wine and enjoy it’

Why not?” came Connor Roberts’ reply when asked, minutes after his goal had put the knockout stages in view for Wales, whether the team could next pull off the unthinkable: defeat Italy, unbeaten in 29 matches and on a run of 31 unanswered goals, in Rome to top Group A. But first, they had to drink in the euphoria. “It’s a Wednesday night but pour yourself a nice glass of wine and enjoy it,” was the defender’s message to supporters in Baku and beyond.

A few sore heads along the promenade suggested they had done that and more, with fans up early for a charter flight back to Cardif. At one hotel, supporters had taken over the flipchart in the bar, scrawling ‘We’re all going on a European tour’ and ‘Don’t Take Me Home’ in block capitals. If Wales top the group, they will head to Wembley. If they finish second, it will be a trip to Amsterdam, with Finland or Russia the likely opponents. If it is third place, Seville, Bucharest or Glasgow are the possible venues. There are a few ifs and buts, but Wales will take some stopping.

A fearless and fierce performance against Turkey, lit up by Aaron Ramsey's nonchalant control and finish from Gareth Bale's flighted pass, evoked memories of Wales' run to the semi-finals at Euro 2016 and breathed life into this campaign. At full-time, Bale, as captain, gathered the players in a huddle. "He told us what we all knew: that we are an amazing team, that he loves our togetherness and that the team spirit we have is very unique," says the defender Chris Mepham. "You saw in the 2016 campaign that it can take you very far and there is no reason why it cannot be the same this year. We'll go to Rome and take the game to them."

Wales fly to Rome on Friday evening and upon departure it should feel a job well done, even if the reality is they have won only one game. Tasked with playing more than 3,000 miles from home while other home nations are able to lean on home comforts brought no end of challenges.


There have been late nights – Wales have been working on UK timings in Azerbaijan, instead of adapting to the three-hour time difference, and they have trained in the searing afternoon sun to prepare for the heat faced at kick-off on Wednesday. On the night, how they rose to the occasion.

“We knew there’d be a good amount of [TURKEY]fans here,” says Mepham. “We felt the atmosphere but credit to ourselves, we dealt with it really well. It shows we can come away from home and win like this against a very good Turkish side. We have nothing to fear going forward now.”

Wales transformed their tournament in 90 minutes. They were fortunate to escape with a point against Switzerland in their opening game but against Turkey a youthful squad showed maturity to thrive. Wales looked dangerous every time they poured forward, attacking Turkey from all angles. Daniel James was a menace on the left, Bale back to his best on the right. Down the middle the unselfish Kieffer Moore forged a threat the Turkey defence never got to grips with.

Ramsey, in particular, was dynamite. He put in arguably his best performance since qualifying for this tournament against Hungary two years ago; some supporters would argue since that iconic quarter-final victory against Belgium in Lille. “When I play for Wales I just say to myself: ‘Just give the ball to the good players,’” says Roberts, whose self-deprecating character is typical of the down-to-earth attitude across the Wales squad.

“I know where my lane is, I try to stay in it. I try to give it to Rambo and Gaz. On nights like this they are worth their weight in gold – and that’s probably a lot of gold. To win man of the match after missing a penalty is a decent effort. They want to carry us, take us on the ship and do all we can to go as far as we can.”

The Turkey captain, Burak Yilmaz, was guilty of missing a second-half sitter but Wales, unlike against Switzerland, never looked flustered. "At half-time, we were saying to each other in the dressing room: try not to sink, try not make it a game of attack v defence," Roberts said. "We had to stand up to it and be counted. It was a totally different type of game in the second half. We were resilient, we played for the badge and for all of the people back home. It was incredible."

Ben Davies and Joe Morrell made last-ditch clearances, Joe Rodon was imperious in the heart of defence, and then there was another scrapbook of fine saves from Danny Ward, who has not played a league game for more than four years.

If anything sums up the Wales spirit, it was the sight of Roberts, a right-back, bursting into the six-yard box in the 94th minute to put the game beyond doubt. Onwards to Rome, then. Wales will no doubt be written off but that is the way they like it. "No fear, no pressure," says the midfielder Joe Allen. "We're the underdogs going into it but that is the type of situation we enjoy." - Guardia