As Wales toasted a famous win over Belgium in Lille, the semi-finals beckoning at Euro 2016, one man was tormented with joy and despair.
Aaron Ramsey had outshone a midfield containing Kevin De Bruyne, Radja Nainggolan and Axel Witsel – even if the headlines would go to Hal Robson-Kanu and the unlikeliest of Cruyff turns. But it had come at a cost. A needless handball would rule him out of the semi-final with Portugal. Still, they had Gareth Bale, right?
Wales returned home as national heroes, but not champions, as Ramsey was forced to watch their final act from the stands. Bale tried to write another famous chapter but it was wily Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo who progressed, beating France in the final to lift their first major tournament trophy. Five years on, the duo are back to make amends.
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Wales' Aaron Ramsey, Gareth Bale and Sam Vokes applaud fans at the end of the match.
Image credit: Eurosport
Since that run to the last four in France, Ramsey has moved from Arsenal to Juventus and while not a complete disaster of a move, he has floated between the bench and the pitch, failing to finish 90 minutes at club level since the end of January. Bale’s dip has been more stark. Despite playing a role in four Champions League crowns, he is perhaps the most despised man in Real Madrid’s ranks. A return to Tottenham on loan failed to evoke memories of old, with the goals and performances far too fleeting to help the club end their trophy drought.
But if the 1-1 draw with Switzerland dredged up Wales’ greatest fear – that Ramsey and Bale are past their peak – then the 2-0 win over Turkey assuaged it. It wasn’t that their performances were perfect – Ramsey twice spurned huge chances in the first half while Bale blew a three-on-two breakaway and blazed a hopeless penalty over Ugurcan Cakir’s crossbar – but that they were at the heart of every big moment.
At points, it looked as though they were on a third two-player team, determined to share the ball only between themselves. Twice Kieffer Moore was ignored with the goal agape. Twice Wales failed to score. But this is what the Welsh want – their biggest players deciding the biggest moments. Ramsey grabbed the opener from Bale’s wonder-vision pass, before the forward tricked his way to teeing up the second. Ramsey even made a last-ditch tackle inside the penalty area at one point. Their profligacy is an unimportant sidenote at this stage.
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Turkey definitely aided their quest. Talk of them being dark horses has proved unfounded as they followed up a masterclass in how to not retain possession against Italy with another on how to let midfield runners poke holes in a defence. Their challenge was best summed up by talisman Burak Yilmaz taking a 40-yard pot shot from right wing rather than wait for the cavalry and his biggest contribution came when a silly tap of Joe Rodon’s chin sparked a late-match squabble.
Yilmaz’s woes highlighted how international teams can struggle with one attacking talisman. Just ask Poland and Robert Lewandowski. Turkey clearly thought Wales fell into that category too, handing Ramsey the keys to Baku as they kept a watchful eye on Bale. But with two elite players, at least in national colours, and a talented and industrious (if limited) support cast, Wales have a chance of emulating their heroics in France.
Just as they did in 2016, Wales have found their way onto the kinder side of the draw. If they can finish above the Swiss and take second in the group – at this stage Italy look the favourites to top Group A – they will play the runners-up in Group B. It’s hard to see Belgium not winning that group, leaving Russia, Finland and Denmark scrapping over second place. Given the awful absence of Christian Eriksen, it’s not hard to argue that Wales would be at least equal favourites against all three in the last 16.
And after that? Well, we’re deep into the realms of ifs and maybes, but the most plausible scenario would be a quarter-final with either the winners of Group C (the Netherlands look early contenders) or whoever finishes third out of France, Portugal, Germany and Hungary in Group F. Difficult but not impossible.
Wales have been here before and thrive as underdogs and this time Ramsey will be ready. No silly yellow cards. The telepathy with Bale growing with each match. These two are hard to keep quiet and on this evidence, don’t rule out another memorable run just yet.
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