Wales exceeded expectations at Euro 2016 – but must now deal with them | Paul Wilson

Chris Coleman’s side lit up Euro 2016 yet their inhibited performance in losing to Portugal in the semi-finals shows they have to cope with growing pressure

Commiserations to Wales, whose exhilarating Euro 2016 journey came to an end at the semi-final stage in Lyon, but congratulations to all concerned for lighting up the tournament – particularly from a British point of view – and showing what is possible when a team functions as a team and takes a strong mentality and deep reserves of self-belief out on to the pitch.

This is not intended as veiled criticism of England, though some may read it that way, for the Welsh and the English narratives have been inextricably entwined in France. They were drawn in the same group, and though England won the head-to-head battle – just – they lost the war by finishing second to a team with two victories. England were then reprieved when of all the last-16 possibilities they were handed a game against Iceland, while Wales’s reward for overcoming Northern Ireland and ending up in the friendlier half of the draw was a daunting quarter-final against Belgium.

No need to go over old ground, everyone knows what happened, including the largely manufactured controversy where Welsh players were caught celebrating England’s demise. They said they were delighted at becoming the last home nation alive in the tournament and fair play to them. No one from England had the stomach for an argument at that point; it was just a relief to see that players from these islands still knew how to have fun and enjoy themselves after three weeks away from home, especially when they took that spirit and spiky attitude to Lille and stuck it to the Belgians.

If that was one of the performances of the tournament, it also contained a contender for best goal at Euro 2016 in the form of Hal Robson-Kanu’s stunning Cruyff turn and shot, and in Aaron Ramsey Wales could also claim one of the most consistent performers over the past month. That Wales were not quite the same expressive attacking force against Portugal might have been due to the Arsenal player’s absence through suspension, though something else could also have been at work.

Wales looked tense for the first time in the semi-final. In the first half especially, when the scores were still level, they seemed inhibited, as England often are. In Lyon, Wales perhaps noticed the difference between playing with freedom and playing with the pressure of expectation. Many people thought, possibly wrongly, that a side capable of playing Belgium off the park would breeze past Portugal and book a place in the final. At the very least, because of their success in the earlier rounds and the infectious optimism and good humour engendered in their supporters, Wales were expected to do well in the semi-final. Whereas it had been largely anticipated they would go out at the quarter-final stage, particularly when Belgium made such inroads in the opening minutes it looked as though the contest might be over by the interval.

Chris Coleman, the Wales manager, had an explanation for that. He said Wales were apprehensive at first because they knew what the Belgium frontline was capable of doing, but when their worst fears were confirmed as early as the 13th minute it had the effect of steadying nerves and settling the team down. “We just stuck to the gameplan after that, we knew what we had to do,” Coleman said. “First of all we had to get back into the game, which we did, and once that happened we bossed the rest of the first half.”

All true, and Wales’ determined recovery in its turn unsettled their opponents. The Belgian gameplan went out of the window as their midfield retreated and left the front players isolated, and Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard were resorting to hopeful shots from distance even before Robson-Kanu tilted the match decisively in Wales’ favour.

Optimists might have been clinging to the hope that something similar would happen when Wales went behind in Lyon, but no such luck. In Cristiano Ronaldo Portugal had a player for the big occasion, someone who is quite literally capable of rising to whatever challenge is put in front of him. Gareth Bale did not play badly, he certainly did not shrink from the contest, but it was his Real Madrid team-mate who delivered the goods, and an assist for a second goal within minutes as the Wales defence reeled effectively ended the argument.

Gareth Bale could not inspire another Wales fightback as they slipped to a 2-0 defeat to Portugal in their Euro 2016 semi-final.
Gareth Bale could not inspire another Wales fightback as they slipped to a 2-0 defeat to Portugal in their Euro 2016 semi-final. Photograph: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

Portugal will be underdogs whoever they end up playing in the final, though as long as they have Ronaldo in his present form they will always have a chance. The former Manchester United forward was being written off as an international performer following the last World Cup, where Portugal were beaten 4-0 by all-conquering Germany and failed to progress beyond the group stage, though Ronaldo was never fully fit in Brazil. He might be two years older now, but he looks a different player: fully restored and ready to seize any opportunities for glory and grandstanding that might come his way at this advanced stage of his career.

Portugal are a different team when he is performing at his peak: witness his extraordinary contribution to the 3-3 group draw against Hungary. While it might appear that Fernando Santos’s side have ridden their luck at times in France, and reached the final in spite of some ordinary performances in the group and in the quarter-final against Poland, they deserve credit not only for sticking around – a necessary tournament skill England are no closer to mastering – but for getting past two of the form teams of the tournament in Croatia and Wales.

Croatia were strangely unadventurous in their last-16 game in Lens, but they went into it on the back of a victory against Spain that installed them in some quarters as tournament favourites. Wales were never quite that, though they went into their semi-final with a huge amount of goodwill behind them and a real chance of continuing an excellent run. Perhaps it was the expectation that got to Coleman and his players in the end, or perhaps Portugal are simply a tight defensive unit that any side would find difficult to beat.

Either way, two conclusions can be drawn. Portugal will not be pushovers in the final, and Wales were one of the outstanding successes at Euro 2016. It takes some nerve to ride around France in a team bus bearing the slogan “The Dragon Will Rise”, but that’s what it did, and nerve is exactly what Wales displayed. “There was a psychological barrier we needed to go through,” Coleman explained, expressing the hope that Wales can now qualify and compete at tournaments more regularly rather than perennially looking on from afar. Consider that barrier smashed. An area the size of Wales has just arrived on the football map, hopefully to remain a feature for some time.


Paul Wilson

The GuardianTramp

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