Four years ago, when Chris Coleman took charge of his home nation, he would have done anything to be in the knockout stages of Euro 2016.
Well, now he is.
A dream start against a dangerous Slovakia team looked to be just that after Daniel Sturridge broke Welsh hearts in the 91st minute in Lens. However, just four days and three goals later, they are in the last 16 of their first major tournament since 1958.
It could have all been so different had Ben Davis not saved a shot from Marek Hamsik off the Welsh line just two minutes into their opening game. However, he did and Wales were 1-0 up just eight minutes later. A Hal Robson-Kanu shot, all-be-it not his cleanest, gave them all three points taking them into the clash with fierce rivals England.
A lop-sided game was settled by two half-time substitutions made by the Three Lion’s manager Roy Hodgson. Premier League champion Jamie Vardy and Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge both got on the score sheet to cancel out Gareth Bale’s first-half free kick.
Whilse England’s players and fans celebrated, a post-match huddle assembled around captain Ashley Williams who didn’t allow The Dragons’ heads to fall, which was aided by the deafening noise created by their travelling fans.
Whatever was said by their leader couldn’t have gone down better as Wales never looked troubled by a side who had already earnt a draw against Hodgson’s men.
It took Ramsey just 11 minutes to glide through the Russian defence and chip goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev to kick start a historic night for the underdogs. Neil Taylor scored his first goal for Wales nine minutes later – the first competitive goal he has scored since April 2010 when he was playing for Wrexham.
The party in Cardiff was well under way by the time Bale made himself the top scorer at the tournament with the third goal of the night, his third of the tournament.
So far, Coleman’s tactics have reasonably straight forward. He has made just one change defensively, the restoration of first choice goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey after he missed the Slovakia game through injury.
Joe Ledley and Dave Edwards have exchanged a starting spot in midfield, as have Hal Robson-Kanu, Sam Vokes and Jonathan Williams upfront. Coleman has played five at the back with attacking fullbacks Taylor and James Chester being given restricted license to join the offence.
Putting the obvious superhuman ability of Gareth Bale to one side, the performances of the aforementioned Ramsey and Joe Allen have been particularly of note.
Ramsey is the tournament’s leading assister with two and, along with Allen, has practically covered every inch of grass Wales have played on. The rise of the two Premier League midfielders in this tournament is a testament to everything Coleman’s men have achieved over the past two weeks.
Allen found himself behind the likes of Emre Can and James Milner in the pecking order at Anfield last season, playing 90 minutes just three times. His assist last night was just one of many highlights of his campaign so far.
Meanwhile, Ramsey had an indifferent season at the Emirates, scoring five goals and making four assists in a relatively disappointing season for the Gunners.
Their top place finish in Group B means they are likely to be given an easier draw for the last 16 than others. The stage for their next battle has been set, with the Parc des Princes - the home of Paris Saint-Germain – being selected for Saturday’s game.
However, exactly who they could face will be determined over the next few days. So far, Albania are the only confirmed team who could be drawn against the Welsh.
We all believed Wales couldn’t qualify for this tournament, even with expansion sanctioned by UEFA two years ago. They now enter the knockout stages as one of the most on form teams remaining: they have the top goal scorer, the top assister and the six goals they have scored is more than any other country.
There is no reason as to why they can’t go onto to win the whole competition. Stranger things have happened in the world of football, look at what Leicester achieved last season. Greece did it at the Euros as recently as 2004 in their first participation in a tournament for 20 years.
En route to the final, the Greeks beat world and European champions France, as well as the Czech Republic and hosts Portugal. Whether Wales would have enough to beat current world champions Germany, reigning champions Spain or even hosts France – the three favourites this year – is yet to be tested, but they wouldn’t shy away from the challenge.
One thing that is for sure in the Welsh camp right now is they will believe they can beat anyone. Whoever they face in the coming weeks will have to realise Wales are not the underdogs everyone thought they would be coming into this tournament.
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