Given the dazzling array of creative talent on show, it was perhaps rather surprising that all the pre-match talk surrounded the defensive personnel that each manager might employ. With Jan Vertonghen injured and Thomas Vermaelen suspended, Marc Wilmots had a small and inexperienced pool of replacements to choose from. Wales, meanwhile, were sweating on the fitness of defensive rock Ashley Williams. Although Chris Coleman insisted that he had trained all week and would be ready, there were worries that the shoulder injury he picked up against Northern Ireland might hamper his performance.
As expected, Wilmots brought Jason Denayer and Jordan Lukaku into the back four, which was good news for the Welsh, as before tonight they only had 11 caps between them. Chris Coleman, meanwhile, opted to start with Robson-Kanu up front, with Vokes dropping to the bench after an ineffective display in the last round.
The game kicked-off amid the pouring rain, as the expectant fans in the Lille Métropole stadium wondered whose dreams would be washed away during the following 90 minutes.
Both teams started brightly, looking to move the ball forward quickly, with the Belgian midfield coming out on top in the early exchanges. After six minutes De Bruyne and Lukaku caused mayhem in the Penalty box, with the Welsh defence at panic stations, only a great Hennessy save and a terrific block from Taylor prevented Belgium from taking the lead.
Wales responded well, looking to run in behind the inexperienced Belgian back line, with a Bale shot into the side netting the sum total of their efforts.
After 12 minutes Naingollan opened the scoring with an absolutely rasping shot from 30 yards after the Welsh midfield had stood off, almost inviting him to shoot. He didn’t need to be asked twice, he just picked his spot and belted it, the ball brushing Hennessy’s fingertips on the way in to the top left corner of the goal.
Defensively, Belgium suffer from a lack of width. The Welsh full backs were able to maraud largely unopposed as far as the 18 yard line. Wilmots plan was to trust in the pace of his full backs to cut off the Welsh supply line. This high risk strategy almost cost them a goal on 25 minutes, only a wonder save from Coutois kept Neil Taylor’s low drive from levelling the scores.
The equaliser did come on 30 minutes after a good spell of Welsh pressure, a corner from the right was met with a strong header by Ashley Williams, who took full advantage of some non-existent marking and steered a powerful header beyond Courtois.
1 – 1, game on.
Wales continued to apply the pressure. The Belgian midfield were clearly worried about their back four, so played with fear that was seized upon by a hungry Welsh forward line that moved the ball with ease and interchanged seamlessly. When the halftime whistle blew the Belgians were more than happy to seek the sanctity of the dressing room, while the Welsh players would happily have changed ends and played the second half without taking a break.
Marouane Fellaini was introduced at halftime, with Wilmots hoping that his physical presence would upset the Welsh rhythm. This tactical change almost paid dividends within two minutes, as Fellaini was involved in a passing movement that should have been finished by the head of Lukaku.
Further Belgian pressure kept Wales pinned back, with wave after wave of attack being absorbed by a defence that was creaking under the strain.
Until, on 54 minutes, a long ball to Ramsey opened up the Belgian back four, and Hal Robson-Kanu produced a lovely piece of skill to create the space to slot the ball home. It may have been against the run of play, but on balance it was no more than Wales deserved.
2 – 1 to Wales, what would be the Belgian response?
Well, for the most part, it was more nervy defending and disjointed midfield play, although with 20 minutes to go Wales began to tire. Belgium sensed that this could be their way back into the game and committed men forward, forcing free-kicks and corners that Wales struggled to deal with.
Coleman was nervous, the clock was ticking slowly for the former Fulham man. Meanwhile, on the Belgian bench, the hands on Marc Wilmots’ watch were spinning like the propellers on a spitfire.
The victory was sealed on 85 minutes when Sam Vokes drifted past his marker and got on the end of a Gunter cross, his header comfortably beat Courtois and sent his team into the semi finals of a major tournament for the first time in their history. As the 10,000 strong choir belted out ‘Men of Harlech’, the referee blew his whistle and put Belgium out of their misery, sending Wales into ecstasy.
3 – 1 was the final score, which didn’t flatter Wales one bit. They outfought, out-thought and for much of the game outplayed their opponents. Every player in a red shirt gave their all, and given the ability within the Belgian squad, they demonstrated the effectiveness of trust, belief and sheer hard work in the face of supposedly superior opposition.
A yellow card for Ramsey puts him out of the semi final, which has to be a cause for concern amongst the Welsh fans, however, after tonight’s performance, I’m not about to bet against another monumental shock at what is turning about to be one of the best European Championships for many years.
Audrey Hepburn, Eddie Mercx, Plastic Bertrand can you hear me? Hercule Poirot, your boys took a hell of a beating!