Wales win group as Euro dream keeps getting better
Chris Coleman’s side brush aside abject Russian team in Toulouse
Aaron Ramsey is congratulated by Wales team-mate James Chester after opening the scoring in the Euro 2016 Group B game against Russia at Stadium Municipal in Toulouse. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images
“Don’t take me home, please don’t take me home,” sang the Wales supporters on an evening when there was never any danger that Chris Coleman’s players would do anything other than prolong their stay in France. Inspired by Gareth Bale, Wales were irrepressible as they subjected Russia to a humiliating defeat to secure their place at the top of the group.
It was fairytale stuff for a nation appearing at its first major tournament in 58 years, and by the end of the evening Coleman was responding to the Wales fans’ requests for a wave as every pass was cheered. Everything went right for Wales on a balmy night when Bale left the field to a standing ovation after scoring his third goal in as many matches to become the tournament’s leading goalscorer.
Aaron Ramsey scored the first, set up by Joe Allen, and when Neil Taylor added the second in the 19th minute it was clear that this was going to be a special occasion. Taylor had never scored for his country and his last goal at any level was for Wrexham against Grays in the Blue Square Bet Premier in 2010.
Wales, however, were far from done. Bale, who tormented Russia time and again, thoroughly deserved the goal that finally came his way midway through the second half following a flowing move that involved Joe Ledley, Chris Gunter and Ramsey. Fittingly, the world’s most expensive footballer applied the coup de grace and the Welsh party was well and truly underway.
Desperate for a goal to give them a flicker of hope, Russia committed more men forward, leaving them vulnerable to the counter-attack. At times for Wales it felt like an attack against defence training exercise, with Ramsey and Bale almost playing their own little game at the other end of the pitch. Bale, running onto a Ramsey pass that was a touch too heavy, just failed to clip his shot past Igor Akinfeev in the 55th minute but the same combination clicked moments later.
Ledley’s raking diagonal pass picked out Gunter in space on the right and the ball was moved onto Ramsey, who glided across the edge of the area before finding Bale. Akinfeev tried to narrow the angle but Bale, after taking a touch, expertly steered the ball beyond the Russia goalkeeper with the outside of his boot.
Russia seemed there for the taking and it was incredible to see the ease with which Wales carved them open, exposing the naive tactics that encouraged Bale, Aaron Ramsey and the imperious Allen to wreak havoc. Two goals up inside 20 minutes, Wales were in dreamland and it could easily have been three on the half-hour, when Sam Vokes squandered an excellent chance that Bale, after carrying the ball for 60 yards, had laid on a plate for him.
Peripheral in the opening two matches, Bale was enjoying himself, relishing the opportunity to run at the Russian defence and eat up the ground that opened up invitingly in front of him whenever he picked up possession. Within 60 seconds the Real Madrid forward was cutting in from the right and thumping a left-footed shot that Akinfeev parried. It proved to be a sign of things to come.
Ramsey’s opening goal was a beauty, wonderfully taken and superbly crafted by Allen, who makes this Wales team tick with his intelligent passing. James Chester deserved credit for the interception that Allen, with some dexterous footwork in the centre of the pitch, neatly controlled. The pass that followed was majestic, threaded in between Igor Smolnikov, the right back, and Sergei Ignashevich, one of the two Russian central defenders. With Akinfeev dashing from his leg, Ramsey took a touch and, showing impressive composure, dinked the ball over the Russian goalkeeper.
It was the perfect start for Wales and better was to follow. Roman Shirokov nicked the ball off the toe of Bale about 30 yards from the Russian goal and inadvertently released Taylor in oceans of space in the inside left channel. Time seemed to stand still for a moment as Taylor, with only Akinfeev to beat, wondered what to do next. His first attempt was saved but the second, with Akinfeev stranded, was stabbed into the net from eight yards.
With Russia’s defence looking like an accident waiting to happen whenever Wales went forward, the only danger for Coleman’s team was complacency. They nearly got caught out in the 27th minute when Akinfeev punted long upfield and Ashley Williams, stretching as the ball drifted over his head, could only touch it onto Artem Dzyuba, whose first-time shot was then turned behind by Wayne Hennessey.
Then came that Vokes opportunity. A surprise inclusion ahead of Hal Robson-Kanu, the Burnley striker could and should have put the game to bed, but with only Akinfeev to beat he shot straight at the Russia goalkeeper. Still Wales kept pouring forward, Ramsey’s 25-yard drive forcing Akinfeev into an untidy save before Bale, leaving two defenders in his wake, saw yet another attempt smothered.