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Euro 2016, Football

Relaxed Wales eye progress but beware a stirring Belgium



The way that the Wales squad celebrated Iceland’s second round defeat of England, with jubilant cheers as they watched on television, may have stuck in the craw a little, but it was clear to see, as David Cotterill constructed a Lego Eiffel Tower and pictures circulated of the team enjoying a stroll around their base surrounds in Dinard, this is a team having fun.

David Edwards and Sam Vokes played football with locals on the beach and it appeared like any tension over their game with Belgium in Lille on Friday was non-existent as they ate their ice cream cones.

Contrast that with England’s uptight and paranoid camp with 7ft fences, security drones and scripted answers to questions about an in-house darts tournament, you get a fair indication of why Roy Hodgson’s men are travelling home early humiliated while their neighbours are preparing for a historic quarter-final.

The way that Gareth Bale launched a verbal onslaught against England ahead of their group stage encounter was unsavoury but the way Wales have otherwise dealt with their time in France has been exemplary.

Manager Chris Coleman has refused to alter too much from their excellent qualification process, sticking with the rigid 3-5-2 that builds itself around the brilliance of Gareth Bale on the counter attack, and they topped England’s group having seen off Slovakia and rather impressively dispatched Russia.

Bale’s quality shone through to turn a close home-nation tie in their favour against Northern Ireland in Paris and it is the belief given to them by Coleman’s preparation, “he leaves no stone unturned”, says Bale, that has the Real Madrid star clearing his diary ready for a possible return to the French capital on July 10th.

It’s important of course not to get too far ahead but if they see off Belgium then Wales will set up a semi-final with either a wretched Portugal or a Poland that has found goals hard to come by. They are daring to dream and with Belgium the next opposition, there is no reason why they can’t do so.

Coleman’s men won once 1-0 and secured a 0-0 draw away to the Red Devils in qualifying and until the 4-0 thrashing of Hungary in the last 16, in which there were still plenty of nervy moments, Marc Wilmots’s men have appeared unconvincing, still struggling to shake off the enduring image that their “golden generation” was more of a collection of individuals than a cohesive team.

There is a reason why Bale, again in his duty of stoking the passions in the media, spoke confidently on Wednesday of his country’s familiarity with Friday’s opponent and how Wales may even be Belgium’s bogey side.

Belgium were beaten in Cardiff just over a year ago by virtue of a classic Wales display of resolutely soaking up pressure while relying on Bale to provide the genius at the other end, and the game in Lille, on a hard pitch that was re-laid last Friday, is unlikely to be too different.

Nine of the players that started that qualifying victory took to the field against Northern Ireland last Saturday and they are likely to head to Lille confident their familiar game-plan of a stoutly organised defence, led shoulder-injury permitting by captain Ashley Williams, can hold off Belgium’s array of talented stars while Joe Allen’s vision, Aaron Ramsey’s guile and Hal Robson-Kanu’s graft can supplement the imperious threat carried by Bale.

But there is a cautionary sense that this Belgium team is a different beast to the one that was overcome in qualifying. Wilmots’s team have been slow to grow into the tournament after their 2-0 defeat to Italy in their opening game, but it was clear against Hungary that their fire is slowly beginning to ignite.

Eden Hazard was at his irrepressible best after a forgettable season with Chelsea and Kevin De Bruyne appeared, like usual, as if he is operating at a speed in excess of the game he is playing. They will play in tandem with either Yannick Carrasco, the young, tricky Atletico Madrid winger who has impressed in Spain and can freely switch wings with Hazard, or Dries Mertens, Napoli’s slick-footed creator.

Whoever links up with Hazard, there will be concern in the Wales camp that Ben Davies and Neil Taylor may be pinned back and unable to offer the width from full-back that has been central to Coleman’s gameplan.

In attack, Wilmots will require more movement than what the stodgy Romelu Lukaku offers if he is to trouble the Welsh back three, so it is likely that Michy Batshuayi, fresh from his predatory goal against Hungary and his £33 million move to Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, will start from the front.

However, Lukaku showed what he can bring if he is given the opportunities he was presented against Ireland in the group stage and Wilmots has spoken highly of the Everton striker in the build up to this quarter final. Whichever striker starts, even if it is Liverpool’s Divock Origi, Wales’ defence will have to be at their immovable best and it is easy to see why there has been such a desperation for Ashley Williams’s shoulder to repair itself.

Belgium’s growing confidence and comfort in their skin out in France has been largely down to the way Marouane Fellaini, so sluggish in the defeat to Italy, has been phased out of the side by Wilmots, with Axel Witsel and Radja Nainggolan forming a mobile and combative midfield in support of a roaming De Bruyne. That duo will hope to keep Bale quiet while simultaneously offering enough enterprise on the ball to set Belgium’s attacks in motion.

There will be a hope among Bale, Ramsey and Robson-Kanu that Belgium’s back-line, in which Wilmots still inexplicably splits up Tottenham’s centre-half pairing of Toby Alderwiereld and Jan Vertonghen and still has to tend with an uncertainty at right-back, remains vulnerable enough to be targeted.

The personnel involved and the awaiting tactical battle will ensure it will be some game out in Lille on Friday evening and Wales will be determined to show that they deserve to be competing in it. Their camp is one of relaxation and excitement and they will be eager to stay around a little bit longer. If they do, it will be another remarkable achievement for this extraordinary Welsh team.



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