Belfast Telegraph

Welsh wizards in Euro 2016 dreamland

Wales 3 - Belgium 1

By Mark Ogden

When the heroes of the 1958 World Cup returned to Wales after reaching the quarter-finals, the players disembarked at Swansea rail station without so much of a sideways glance, but the boys of 2016 will be given the freedom of Cardiff, Newport and Wrexham after stunning Belgium to reach the semi-finals of the European Championships.

Passion, commitment and togetherness, combined with breathtaking goals from Hal Robson-Kanu and Sam Vokes, following a captain's equaliser from Ashley Williams, sent Belgium crashing out of the tournament to set up a semi-final against Portugal in Lyon next Wednesday.

It will be Cristiano Ronaldo versus Gareth Bale, a clash of two football titans, but Portugal will be wise not to under-estimate the rest of Coleman's squad. 'Are you watching England?' chanted the Wales fans during this destruction of one of the pre-tournament favourites.

England, with all of their Champions League-playing superstars, could not even beat the minnows of Iceland, yet Wales claimed the scalp of Belgium with the goal of the game scored by Robson-Kanu, a player whose Reading contract expired 24 hours earlier. A day after becoming a free agent, he scored the goal of his life.

Despite claiming a victory in Cardiff and draw in Brussels against Belgium during the qualification campaign for this tournament, Wales manager Chris Coleman acknowledged prior to this game that his team would face a different proposition in Lille, and not just on the recently-relaid pitch at the Stade Pierre Mauroy.

The opening ten minutes were a blur for Wales, with Belgium hitting Coleman's team with wave after wave of slick and quick attacks.

The Belgians opened the scoring in spectacular fashion on 13 minutes when Nainggolan struck one of the goals of the tournament.

The AS Roma midfielder beat keeper Wayne Hennessey with a rocket of a shot from 30 yards after being teed up by Hazard.

But Wales steadied themselves and stemmed the Belgian tide. The equaliser came from a set-piece on 31 minutes when Williams escaped his marker to direct a header into the net from Ramsey's corner.

It was a reward for Wales' persistence and Bale, clearly determined to seize the moment, forced another fine save from Courtois when the Chelsea keeper dived full-stretch to keep out the Real Madrid winger's right-foot strike.

Having been outplayed and outrun for 20 minutes, Wales ended the half in the ascendancy. There is an unbreakable spirit in this Wales team and a refusal to cave in, and they once again rolled off the ropes after sustained pressure to hit Belgium hard on the counter.

It was a spectacular response too. Robson-Kanu, having received the ball with his back to goal from Ramsey, sent three Belgian defenders the wrong way which left one-on-one with Courtois.

Without a hint of tension, the former England U-19 forward coolly guided a left-foot shot beyond Courtois to put Wales 2-1 ahead and 35 minutes away from the semi-final.

The Belgium fightback would surely come, a team of such talented players in front of their vast army of fans?

They tried, somewhat half-heartedly, but the defending of Williams, Davies and the hugely impressive James Chester became more resolute with every passing minute.

But Wales were the team with energy, desire and belief and their incredible performance was crowned when Burnley forward Vokes headed Gunter's cross beyond Courtois on 86 minutes.

An unforgettable moment in a summer to remember for Wales. They are now just ninety minutes away from the Euro 2016 final.

Wales: Hennessey, Chester, Ashley Williams, Davies, Taylor, Allen, Ledley (King 77), Ramsey (Collins 90), Gunter, Robson-Kanu (Vokes 80), Bale.

Subs Not Used: Fon Williams, George Williams, Edwards, Richards, Cotterill, Jonathan Williams, Vaughan, Church, Ward.

Booked: Davies, Chester, Gunter, Ramsey.

Goals: Ashley Williams 30, Robson-Kanu 55, Vokes 85.

Belgium: Courtois, Meunier, Alderweireld, Denayer, Jordan Lukaku (Mertens 75), Nainggolan, Witsel, Carrasco (Fellaini 46), De Bruyne, Hazard, Romelu Lukaku (Batshuayi 83).

Subs Not Used: Mignolet, Origi, Kabasele, Dembele, Benteke, Ciman, Gillet.

Booked: Fellaini,Alderweireld.

Goals: Nainggolan 13.

Referee: Damir Skomina (Slovenia).

Match rating: 8/10

Man of the match: Aaron Ramsey

Bookings: Wales 4 Belgium 2

Possession: Wales 46% Belgium 54%

Shots on target: Wales 7 Belgium 5

Fouls committed: Wales 12 Belgium 8

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