Lille: Gareth Bale’s dream of winning Euro 2016 with Wales remains very much alive after he and his teammates dug deep to send Belgium packing in remarkable fashion in Friday’s quarter-final.
Wales recovered from Radja Nainggolan’s missile-like opener in the 13th minute to win 3-1 in Lille but it was unsung captain Ashley Williams, striker Hal Robson-Kanu and substitute Sam Vokes who got the goals.
A semi-final clash with Portugal sets up an enticing clash between Bale and his Real Madrid teammate Cristiano Ronaldo.
“It feels incredible. We fully believed we could get this far. We said we’d give it a good go. We’re enjoying the journey,” said Bale.
“We fought as hard as anyone. We covered every blade of grass. I think we deserve to be in the semi-finals. We believe in ourselves. We know what we’re doing.”
The hopes of Wales fans at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy were pinned on Bale shining as he had done earlier in the tournament.
With his parents watching, Bale had an influence on proceedings but such a spectacular victory owed more to a huge collective effort.
Wales did not reach the quarter-finals by being a one-man team, but they could not have made it this far without Bale.
The world’s most expensive player’s three goals in three games helped Chris Coleman’s side through the group stage and it was his cross that forced the own goal by Gareth McAuley that allowed Wales to beat Northern Ireland in the last 16.
But then there was Robson-Kanu’s winner against Slovakia in their opening game and Aaron Ramsey’s sterling display in the 3-0 trouncing of an abject Russia, not to mention the collective efforts of their well-drilled defence.
Back in 1958, the Welsh had to make do without star player John Charles as they lost narrowly to Pele and Brazil in the World Cup quarter-final in Sweden.
Bale was on the pitch in Lille but it was the character and team spirit of Coleman’s side that shone through as Wales came from behind in remarkable fashion.
– Trademark run -Belgium had threatened to blow them away in the first quarter of an hour but Wales battled back, with Bale drifting in from his position on the right to a more central role.
It was Ramsey’s corner that led to Williams equalising, but Bale made his presence felt, robbing Eden Hazard of the ball before embarking on a trademark 60-yard run which ended with a right-foot shot saved by Thibaut Courtois.
Then Bale’s long ball forward in the 55th minute found Ramsey and his pass picked out Robson-Kanu.
The turn to take three Belgian defenders out of the game was world-class and the finish was as cool as ice from a player whose role in this Welsh side cannot be underestimated.
It was a sign of how Robson-Kanu — now a free agent after being released by Reading — has grown alongside players of the calibre of Ramsey and Bale.
Indeed, the only negative on a glorious night for Wales was a booking for Ramsey that will cruelly see him miss the semi-final.
It was from Bale’s right flank that Wales got their killer third goal but it was Chris Gunter’s cross that was headed in by Vokes to spark wild celebrations from the fans at that end.
And it is Wales who deservedly progress to a first ever tournament semi-final, the first by a British team since England on home soil at Euro 96.
“We’ll do our homework and work on our game plan. It’s not long before the next game. I’m sure there’ll be a few celebrations but not too much,” said Bale.
In Ronaldo and Bale both Portugal and Wales have extraordinary talents capable of turning huge games with moments of magic.
They have both proved that in Champions League and Copa del Rey finals. Yet, on Friday, Bale wasn’t needed to ride to the rescue thanks to a stunning all-round effort from Coleman’s team.