The Red Dragon roars as Wales make history in Lille
Chris Coleman’s side make history as they dispatch sorry Belgium to reach semi-finals
Wales celebrate Sam Vokes’ goal in their famous 3-1 win over Belgium in Lille. Photograph: Reuters
A monumental night for the Welsh national team saw them reach their first ever semi-final of a major tournament with a well-deserved 3-1 victory over a fancied Belgium side in Lille.
Raw emotion filled the air in the northern France venue as Wales went one better than their 1958 predecessors, who reached the last eight of the World Cup.
They also did it the hard way after falling behind to Radja Nainggolan’s thunderous strike, with Ashley Williams, Hal Robson-Kanu and substitute Sam Vokes proving the goal-scoring heroes.
Having his seen his side so decisively outplayed by the Belgians, this will have made grim enough watching for Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill. The Derry man will try to resist the temptation to embark on a schoolyard style calculation on how many Wales might now be expected to beat Ireland by when the two sides meet in the forthcoming World Cup qualification campaign.
Perhaps instead, Chris Coleman’s side will drop points early on due to a Euros hangover.
That might require them to actually win the thing but almost anything seems possible after they booked a place in Wednesday’s semi-final against Portugal.
They will have to plot that final leg of their unlikely journey to the final without either Ben Davies or Aaron Ramsey, both of whom will be suspended after picking up yellow cards.
The Welsh were, to be fair, helped along by the performance of opponents who seem to blow both hot and cold with a ferocity that could burn the skin at a thousand paces.
Marc Wilmots’s side turn it on and off, it seems, like a light switch but unfortunately for them not at will and having threatened more than once to seize control of this game then run away with it, all traces of illumination disappeared after Vokes had added to the goals of Williams and Robson-Kanu.
At the final whistle neither the Belgian players nor their fans could believe what had just happened but when the shock wears off it seems unlikely that many will argue that they deserved anything more.
With Thomas Vermaelen suspended and Jan Vertonghen out injured, Wilmots was forced to use options that quickly began to look unappealing against a side that tended to use the ball better than Ireland had and certainly, in Gareth Bale, had a player capable of hurting opponents if they gave him half the chance.
They did just that early on, when they overcommitted to attack and, when possession was lost, the Real Madrid star suddenly had an awful lot of space to run into but on that occasion Toby Alderweireld did well to guide him wide and his shot was sent to the side-netting.
The Tottenham star could not be everywhere, though, and when he was not at the heart of the defensive action Belgium looked to be skating on thin ice.
At left back, at least Jordan Lukaku looked half decent going forward but neither he nor his fellow 21-year-old, Galatasaray centre half Jason Denayer, looked comfortable at all under pressure. With 11 caps between them before this game it was scarcely surprising but from early on there were signs that Robson-Kanu was beginning to think this might be his night.
Released by Reading at the end of last season and currently without a club, the 27-year-old looked like he should have been able to handle himself at Championship mid-table level here.
Although he would be playing on a bigger stage if he could replicate the touch and deceptive movement he produced for the second-half goal that really set his side on course to a victory that still, with 34 minutes to play, looked far from assured.
It had, though, looked a lot more unlikely through stretches of the first half. The width Wales’ full backs provided allowed the Welsh to stretch the Belgians in a way that Ireland never really had done.
Nonetheless early on it was Wilmots’s men who moved the ball and used the space more effectively with their quick-fire passing putting their opponents on the back foot.
Shaken a little, it seemed, after surviving a quick succession of shots that might well have yielded a goal for Yannick Carrasco, Thomas Meunier or, in the end, Eden Hazard, the Welsh showed an inclination for a spell to drop too deep.
After Joe Allen had given the ball away further up the field James Chester, Ramsey and Williams all stood so far off Nainggolan as to invite a shot that, when duly unleashed, flew between them, beyond Wayne Hennessey and into the top left corner.
That first goal might, as it had for Ireland, have marked the beginning of the end but they kept their heads and levelled 15 minutes later through a coolly executed set-piece routine that the Belgians defended like complete novices with Williams heading home like a seasoned pro.
The second wasn’t much different in its way with Meunier brushed aside then sold a dummy as team-mates scampered around him and Robson-Kanu was allowed to turn and fire home after good work after good work by Bale and Ramsey.
With Belgium then chasing the game, Vokes coolly wrapped up the win by getting on the end of a fine Chris Gunter cross.
For Belgium and its generation of supremely talented individuals there is now Russia and 2018 to look forward to with less confidence than before. For this Welsh team there is the astonishing thought of what the eight days might hold.
Belgium: Courtois; Meunier, Denayer, Aldeweireld, J Lukaku (Mertens, 75 mins); Nainggolan, Witsel; Carrasco (Fellaini, half-time), De Bruyne, Hazard; R Lukaku (Batshuayi, 83 mins).
Wales: Hennessey; Chester, Williams, Davies; Taylor Allen, Ledley (King, 77 mins), Ramsey (Collins, 89 mins), Gunter; Robson-Kanu (Vokes, 80 mins), Bale.
Referee: D Skomina (Slovenia).