Belfast Telegraph

Gareth Bale will only be satisfied if Wales return as champions

BY Jack Pitt-Brooke

Gareth Bale revealed that Wales' "ultimate goal" is to leave Euro 2016 as champions as they prepare for their last 16 clash with Northern Ireland tomorrow.

Wales have already confounded expectations by winning Group B, in their first major international tournament since 1958, with Bale scoring in all three matches.

The Real Madrid forward said at his press conference in Dinard yesterday afternoon that Wales are setting themselves no limits, and would not be satisfied unless they lift the trophy in the Stade de France on July 10.

"Obviously you come to the tournament for one reason, to win," Bale said. "Not to play three games and go home. The ultimate goal is that we want to try and win the tournament.

"Each and every game is as important as it comes. It's a cliche but we'll take each game as it comes.

"Yes we would love to win it, but all our focus now is on Northern Ireland.

"Until that whistle goes and we're through we can't think about it a second before."

Bale revelled in the fact that their two group victories meant that Wales finished Group B with six points, one ahead of England, who now face a far harder route to the final.

Wales managed to beat Russia and Slovakia while England drew with both sides.

"It is a moral victory for us," Bale said. "We get bragging rights to finish top. It is always nice to get one over on the English."

Bale said that Wales' remarkable success has been down to the unity in the camp between players who have been representing their country for years at various levels.

"It's an amazing feeling in the camp," Bale said.

"We have not just been working on it for two years. It's been since we were all young boys, playing together. I was 16, some were 17, 18. We've come through a massive journey.

"We've been in some bad places, we were 112th in the world. Now we're in the last 16 of the Euros."

The players celebrated with a beer and a barbecue after beating Russia 3-0 on Monday night but Bale said they are both relaxed and focused as they prepare for tomorrow's knockout game in the Parc des Princes.

"The camp is happy, we enjoyed it after Russia but the next day was down to business, back on the training pitch," Bale said.

"Recovering, preparing like we always do. There's bubbly characters who like a laugh but we do the serious work when we have to."

It feels like a long time ago now but Russia were throwing everything at Wales for the first 10 minutes of their group game in Toulouse on Monday night.

Wales might have wilted but when Joe Allen received a loose ball in the centre circle he was calm enough and clever enough to set them on their way to Welsh football's greatest night.

Allen turned into space, looked up and weighted a forward pass. The ball rolled through the big gap between two Russian midfielders and then a much smaller gap between two Russian defenders, perfectly meeting Aaron Ramsey's inside run. The Arsenal man controlled the ball, chipped it over Igor Akinfeev and Wales were away.

That win meant Wales finished on top of Group B which is why they are playing Northern Ireland in the last 16 in Paris tomorrow, instead of Iceland in Nice on Monday night.

No one can discount Bale's decisive power, or Ramsey's incision, or Chris Coleman's management, or Ashley Williams' leadership, or performance psychologist Dr Ian Mitchell, or any other part of this great group.

But at the heart of their play, in the middle of the pitch, it is all about the shy boy from Narberth and what he can do with the ball.

That is why Neil Taylor, his great friend, team-mate and room-mate, spoke with such admiration this week about Allen and that pass.

"If somebody else from another team, a Spanish player or someone like that, had played that pass that he did through to Aaron Ramsey then it would be raved about," said Taylor, with genuine enthusiasm.

"And I know it has been raved about here, about Joe with how well he's done. But Joey is very underrated."

In terms of wider profile Allen is very much third behind Bale and Ramsey, but the feeling inside the camp is that he is as important as anyone in this Welsh team.

Sitting alongside Joe Ledley in the heart of Coleman's 3-4-3 system he keeps the ball, creates chances and directs the whole play of the team.

He was the best midfielder on the pitch in the wins against Slovakia and Russia and will be aiming to make it a hat-trick at the Parc des Princes tomorrow.

To hear Taylor and Bale speak about Allen this week was to get a sense of the extremely high regard he is held in by his team-mates. Not just because he is a disarmingly gentle polite amiable person, although that does count for a lot, but because his delicate engine-room work that he does for the good of the team.

"I can't speak highly enough of him, he's been incredible," Bale said.

"He does the dirty work that goes unnoticed. We know how vitally important he is, and how amazing he has played here. Maybe he doesn't get the headlines outside, but in the squad he gets them."

Belfast Telegraph