Sometimes it is best said just as it is: Wales are two steps away from being Europe’s champions. Unless, Iceland better this, Wales will be the story of Euro 2016 irrespective of what happens in the semifinals against Portugal. Sweet dreams are made of these.
And they did it when Belgium kept Gareth Bale quiet. Belgium coach Marc Wilmots had spoken about not man-marking Bale and he stayed true to his words. But what can you do when Hal Robson Kanu scores like that?
With two strikers in his name --- he is Nigeria and Arsenal star Nwankwo Kanu’s cousin and nephew of Bryan ‘Pop’ Robson -- who played for Newcastle, West Ham and Chelsea --- scoring goals would be in his DNA, you would think. And given how his turn wrong-footed defenders Wilmots had lined up, you would be right.
The goal again underscored that it is not possession but penetration that matters. Belgium had begun the second half stronger and had Romelu Lukaku kept his header in target, we could have had a different result. But then it is on such fine margins that tournament football gets decided.
Eden Hazard then went narrowly wide with a curler after cutting in and his expression seemed to suggest that a goal was around the corner. Just like David Trezeguet’s did after he hit the bar in the 2002 World Cup opener against Senegal. It did, at the other end.
Aaron Ramsey’s cross from the right had Robson Kanu doing a Cruyff turn that beat Thomas Meunier and Jason Denayer before slotting home like he was taking a penalty kick. This wasn’t as spectacular as that bicycle back-volley from Xherdan Shaquiri but would be one of the better goals of this Euro.
It would also be Wales’ most important goal since Terry Medwin’s match-winner against Hungary took them to the 1958 World Cup quarterfinals where they lost to Brazil. That was the only time Wales had played the finals of a major tournament.
If that 56th minute goal wasn’t a sucker punch, Sam Vokes’ 86th minute effort sure was. Like earlier in the quarterfinal, when Ashley Williams had equalised, this goal too exposed chinks in the Belgium defence. Really, a team ranked No. 2 in the world should have had better cohesion at the back although it was missing Vincent Kompany, who was in the stands due to injury.
Williams had got a free header late in the first half as well, when Wales -- having made it 1-1 -- had taken control; the opponents strangely deciding to sit back and soak the pressure.
Vokes’ goal too came when he stole in between central defenders. By then, Belgium were desperate for a second goal and Marouane Fellaini came closest with a header under pressure that narrowly went wide.
This was so different from the spate of drab matches decided through late goals and tie-breakers. The Hungary-Portugal group league game had opened up only in the second-half but here both teams were going for goal from the start.
Belgium began with more attacking intent and Wales needed to put three bodies in front of goal to deny Kevin de Bryune, Yannick Carrasco and Lukaku, who will possibly now remember his 50th international match for the wrong reasons. Wales too were not to be denied and Bale had beat central defender Toby Alderweireld but singed the side-netting.
When Wales couldn’t close down Radja Nainggolan, he made them pay with a 30-yard cannonball that the keeper saw late. A defensive midfielder, Nainggolan isn’t supposed to be Belgium’s go-to man for goals but he has shown in this competition that he has a thing for long-rangers that find the target.
On Friday, Wales again showed there is more to them than Bale. Indeed Neil Taylor could have scored in Lille and he plays as left-back. This is a team that is performing at the height of its powers under coach Chris Coleman. They had finished behind Belgium in the qualifiers but had beaten them (1-0, Bale) in Cardiff and drew goalless away. So, let’s not be misled into thinking that expanding the competition to 24 teams has anything to do with Wales’ incredible run.