Clear-eyed Chris Coleman plots the course to take Wales past Portugal

Manager is confident his battle-hardened team inspired by Gareth Bale can reach the Euro 2016 final with the right game plan against experienced opponents

These are intoxicating days for Christopher Patrick Coleman. Having masterminded Wales’s progress to a historic Euro 2016 semi-final against Portugal in Lyon on Wednesday, he can now be linked with the England manager’s job. Let it be said: Coleman has arrived.

He sidestepped the issue with a mixture of deference and incredulity. “Not that I would get offered it anyway, but it’s something I would never rule in, to be honest with you,” Coleman said. “I have a lot of time and respect for Roy Hodgson, he’s a very good manager.

“He’s lost his job so England will search again but that’s not even – it’s something that would never, ever enter my thinking. I’m a Welshman through and through. At international level, I’ve only ever wanted Wales. It would only ever be Wales.”

It was what Coleman said next that illustrated his single-mindedness, his drive and the clarity of his vision, which has carried him and Wales on this wild ride to France and past all-comers, thus far. He has allowed a nation to rejoice and to dream of further glories still.

“My next job after Wales, whenever that is, will be somewhere abroad,” said Coleman, who has managed Real Sociedad in Spain and Larissa in Greece. “I quite fancy the chance of going abroad again, because I think that’s my best one of managing in the Champions League.

“Champions League football in the Premier League – you’re talking about the top, big, massive clubs, and it’s not something I think I’d get linked with.

“So, my best chance of managing Champions League football would be abroad and it’s an ambition of mine to do that. To manage another country? No, I wouldn’t. That’s not something I would consider.”

Coleman seems to have it all mapped out. More immediately and urgently, he knows precisely what will be required against Portugal, in a match that has captured the imagination and, for better or worse, continues to be framed by the Gareth Bale versus Cristiano Ronaldo sub-plot.

Wales have thrilled en route to their first semi-final at a major tournament, emerging on top of Group B courtesy of victories against Slovakia and Russia; edging past Northern Ireland in the last 16 and turning on the style against Belgium in the quarter-final on Friday. The 3-1 win was watched by 1.27m people back at home – more than a third of the Welsh population. It was the biggest TV audience for a live sporting event in the nation’s history. The record is not likely to last beyond Wednesday.

Coleman, though, refuses to look back. His focus is fixed on the challenge that lies ahead. The emotion, he said, has to be removed. It is an occasion that calls for cool heads and calculation. For single-mindedness.

“If we go into the next game and think ‘this tournament is so nice, and it is great, and haven’t we done so well’, then his lot will turn us over,” Coleman said, jerking his thumb at the Portuguese journalist in the room. “They will. They will beat us. If we go in with that mentality; that it doesn’t matter as, when we get home, the country have had such a good time watching us – it is over before we kick a ball.

“It all has to be behind us. It is only the next one. We have a huge chance here and I say that, as I know how good our boys are and can be. We have to get our gameplan right and then we have a good chance of good things happening. It is not easy to take the emotion out of the situation, with the amount of emotion that we need to take out of it. But we need to control it. We can’t let it control us and, if it does, we are dead in the water.”

Coleman is fully aware of Portugal’s threat, and it goes beyond the high‑profile menace of one player. Fernando Santos’s team have not won a game at these finals over 90 minutes and they have done so only once over 120 minutes. They have scored six goals to Wales’s 10. But they know how to get the job done. The knowhow is ingrained into their footballing culture. This will be their fourth semi-final at the past five European Championships.

“They are resilient,” Coleman said. “They have a strength that they can come through tough times in games, where they have not dominated. They have not sneaked into a semi-final.

“It has taken them five games to get here and that is not luck. They have a tough mentality. We have had to do it a different way. But how we did it and how they did it – I don’t worry about that. This game will be completely different for them and us.”

Unsurprisingly, the discussion about the relative merits of Bale and Ronaldo was extensive. A Spanish journalist asked Coleman whether he thought Bale ought to win the Ballon d’Or while the manager noted how there would be “no love lost” between the Real Madrid players. Any friendships would have to be placed on hold during the game.

Coleman commented on one of the most revealing contrasts between the pair – how Ronaldo might throw a tantrum at a team-mate if they made a mistake, whereas Bale would invariably offer encouragement. Coleman spoke mainly about Bale. He left what he thought about Ronaldo largely unsaid.

“They are obviously different characters,” Coleman said. “Whatever Gareth brings to the table for us, that’s him. He’s not manufactured. He doesn’t try to be something he’s not. To be fair to Cristiano, if that’s his personality, that’s him being him. He’s not trying to be something he’s not. You can’t argue with what he’s achieved in the game. You could forgive Gareth for changing a little bit, with all the attention he gets. But, honestly, he hasn’t. Football is his life. It’s not something he is using to facilitate a superstar lifestyle.”

Coleman made several references to Wales’s status as the underdogs on Wednesday, which is something that suits him and them. The one time when they have been the favourites – against Northern Ireland – they struggled and the 1-0 win was ugly. As an aside, Wales sit below Northern Ireland in the Fifa rankings but even Coleman was not about to play that up.

What Coleman did do here was offer characteristically stirring rhetoric. He talked of how “the handcuffs are off; we are not restricted”. He said his team had become “game-hardened” as the momentum has built behind them. He might not expect to win but he has come to expect his players to perform. And, he added, he always believed that, if not the semi-final, they would reach the quarter-final.

Coleman banged the drum hard. The tone has been set. “This is new territory,” he said. “You can be blinded by the lights and shrink, and crawl back into your corner, where you came from. Or, you down-to-earth can show some belief, and stand up for your identity.”


David Hytner in Dinard

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