If you had stood in Novi Sad on the 11th of September 2012 and been told that within four years, Wales would be in the last four of a major tournament, you’d have laughed and told them to put their pants back on. Chris Coleman’s side had just been thumped 6-1 by Serbia and the Welsh manager later admitted that he considered stepping down.
His first five matches in charge had brought five defeats. He would only pick up three victories in the remaining eight World Cup 2014 qualifiers including an embarrassment in Macedonia for which he was not present. People were seriously questioning whether he could fill the shoes of the late Gary Speed.
The Tinker Man
Coleman’s tinkered a lot in the three and a half years since that Serbian defeat with 14 of the squad in Serbia that night in the squad for the historic victory over Belgium, with half of those starting last Friday night. The qualifying campaign saw him use six different formations in 10 matches. But throughout, the personnel mostly stayed the same. Wales used 25 players in qualifying – the joint second lowest number of all the teams at the Euros.
It’s that consistency that got Wales to their first major tournament in six decades, and it’s that consistency that’s brought them to the semi finals. Just look at the celebrations after the quarter final victory. Instead of a Steven Gerrard-like fist pumping team talk, the Welsh stood in a circle, jumped up and down and sang Don’t Take Me Home.
Smells like team spirit
Through qualifying, Gareth Bale claimed that team spirit was responsible for the gritty hard fought matches in Cyprus and Israel. In the build up to the English game, Chris Gunter called it unbreakable. That point was proved after the sucker punch defeat to the Three Lions.
To concede a last minute winner and put all pressure onto a 90 minute game would see a lot of teams fold. Wales thrived. They trampled over Russia to grab top spot, with that word unbreakable coming up again. The first word Chris Coleman used to describe the team after beating Belgium? Unbreakable.
So now they’re coming up against Portugal. We stated before the tournament that Wales were the ultimate ‘one man team’ at the Euros. But that one man is one of the best in the world – and their exploits so far would suggest that they’ve grown out of the stereotype.
Aaron Ramsey has been a highlight even though he’s now suspended for the semi final. Hal Robson-Kanu, despite not having a club, has scored twice and caused bother for all that come up against him.
Portugal against Wales on Wednesday night throws up another interesting battle.
The Gareth Bale that plays for Wales is a bit different to the Gareth Bale that plays for Real Madrid. In Spain the press and media always focus on the ‘other guy’ aka Cristiano Ronaldo. CR7 looks for attention, he wants the spotlight and he does everything to get into it. He leads Portugal with the same actions as he does in the Bernabeu.
Contrast that to the quiet Welshman who will rarely do interviews, likes to keep his head down and avoid trouble with normal celebrations in Spain, but gladly did the press conference pre-match against Belgium and cracked jokes all the way through.
It was Bale who scored the lead goal in the 2014 Champions League final against Atletico Madrid but Ronaldo stole the headlines with his penalty and shirtless celebration. Ronaldo got an assist for the Portugal winner against Croatia in extra time and demanded the credit rather than goalscorer Quaresma. Bale’s celebrations so far have consisted of him in a bundle of team mates.
What better way to prove your ability and steal the headlines from the biggest attention seeker on Planet Football than knocking him and his side out of the European Championship? It’s not like Portugal have never flopped against a smaller side when the going got tough.
It still sounds strange to say. Wales are 90 minutes away from a European final. We all thought that Greece would get beaten in 2004, We all thought Leicester would fade in the Premier League last season.
There’s not usually a place for sentiment in football or sport in general. But we’re suckers for a fairytale or four.Wales to beat Portugal on Wednesday night and then go on to lift the trophy on Sunday night.
What’s stopping them?