Wales have advanced to the semifinals of a major football tournament for the first time with a come-from-behind 3-1 victory over Belgium, which paid dearly for its careless play on defence in an Euro 2016 quarter-final here.
The Belgians on Friday night grabbed the early lead with a long-distance strike off the foot of midfielder Radja Nainggolan in the 12th minute. But Belgium’s porous defence allowed Wales captain Ashley Williams to score the equaliser at the half-hour mark, reports Efe.
Wales then took the lead 10 minutes into the second half on a goal by Hal Robson-Kanu before Sam Vokes put the icing on the British squad’s victory — its biggest in nearly 60 years — shortly before the end of regulation.
The contest at the Pierre-Mauroy Stadium featured two of soccer’s biggest stars in Belgium’s Eden Hazard and Welshman Gareth Bale, but the Chelsea attacking midfielder was hampered by a leg injury and largely invisible while the Real Madrid winger also failed to make a big impact.
Wales made one change from the team that defeated Northern Ireland 1-0 in Round of 16, with Robson-Kanu being brought into the front two alongside Bale. Sam Vokes dropped to the bench as a result. James Chester, Ashley and Ben Davies made up the customary back three, with Joe Ledley once again in the engine room, reports Xinhua.
Belgium saw Jordan Lukaku starting at left back, with chief coach Marc Wilmots having no option but to also name young Jason Denayer alongside Toby Alderweireld in defence. Thomas Vermaelen was out through suspension, while Jan Vertonghen missed out due to an ankle injury in training. Yannick Carrasco came in on the right, with Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard in support of lone striker Romelu Lukaku.
Belgium nearly kicked off the scoring in the sixth minute, when Romelu, Thomas Meunier and Hazard all squandered chances at point-blank range.
But six minutes later, Nainggolan, the Roma midfielder with a blonde mohawk, tattoos on his neck and a smoking habit tolerated by Wilmots, unloaded a remarkable blast from 25 metres out past the diving Welsh goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey.
Wales, however, came storming back before the half-hour mark, nearly scoring on a Neil Taylor strike off an Aaron Ramsey cross that goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois brilliantly saved.
A few minutes later, however, Ramsey — who has played a role in four of his squad’s last six goals — found Ashley unmarked in the area on a corner kick and the Dragons’ captain headed the ball home.
Belgium appeared to have the edge in the early part of the second half but more defensive lapses reared their ugly head in the 55th minute, when some nifty dribbling by Robson-Kanu put three defenders out of position and set up a left-footed blast from just outside the six-yard box.
One last goal on a header by Vokes, who had entered the game in the 80th minute and scored five minutes later, sealed the historic victory for Wales.
Wales chief coach Chris Coleman said: “I think we dreamed about the night like this. It’s classic. We were far away from being incredible position. Obviously, I’m extremely pleased.”
Wilmots said: “We have to replace entire back-line. We made mistakes. I am responsible for the young team on the pitch.”
Wales, whose last major soccer feat was a quarter-final berth at the 1958 World Cup, will next take on Cristiano Ronaldo-captained Portugal in the semi-finals on July 6 in Lyon.
But they will have to make do in that match without creative force Ramsey, who picked up his second booking of the tournament late in Friday’s contest.