Euro 2016 has been a tournament of drama, late goals and unpredictability at the best of times with the likes of Iceland, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Wales, Slovakia and Hungary all defying the odds to find their way into the last 16 with the rest of the big guns.
Much has been made of the knockout stages draw with one side filled with international prestige with the likes of Spain, Germany, Italy, France all picked to win the trophy while the ‘underdogs’ so to speak are on the other side but amongst the ‘minnows” are Wales and Gareth Bale who could make real noise this summer in France.
Topping a group when no one else believed they could, Daniel Sturridge last gasp winner in Lens last week brought Chris Coleman’s side back down to earth with a bump following a win against Slovakia in their opening game of the competition. But a superb display against Russia, the perfect reaction to defeat against England as they embarrassed Russia 3-0 to top the group and pip England to the post.
Topping group B has allowed for a slightly easier route to a potential final for Coleman’s side and it certainly isn’t out the question. With Northern Ireland in Paris on Saturday evening followed by a trickier test in Belgium or Hungary in the quarterfinal, it could ultimately leading to a tie against one of Croatia, Poland, Switzerland or Portugal in the semis, all (bar Croatia) very beatable sides.
They’ve shown for a side who haven’t experienced tournament football since 1958, an ability to adapt and deal with the pressures of being on the big stage. They held their nerve against Slovakia and could have taken a point against England before before responding in style against the Russians which has set them up with a winnable tie against Michael O’Neils’ Northern Ireland.
There are no easy games at this stage but they’ve been rewarded for their work during the group stage, and a favourable run to the final will have them believing that with a bit of luck they can do the unthinkable. They may not be blessed with eleven world class performers but whoever Coleman throws in, they’ll without fail give their all and the proof in the pudding that this can pay dividends with the likes of Iceland, Hungary, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland showing that this can go some way to getting results.
The difference is the above sides don’t have players like Aaron Ramsey and more importantly Gareth Bale amongst their ranks. Ramsey was impressive against England and showed what he is capable of against Russia with an assist and a goal but Bale showed why Real Madrid parted with so much money to bring him to the Spanish capital.
Bale has been influential for Wales thus far, a trademark free kick in the opener against Slovakia was followed by another against England. And against Russia he again found the net making it 3 in 3.
Much has been made of his suitability to pick up the mantle at the Bernabeu when the Ballon D’or winner eventually calls it a day, and his performances for his country are showing he has the ability to do so.
There is still a long way to the final but the path is open for Wales to create history and Gareth Bale to cement his place in the world’s elite by making the headlines in France.