When Wales celebrated a goalless draw in Belgium in November 2014, not even Gareth Bale, who talked that night about the huge confidence boost the result would bring, could have dreamt that 19 months later the two teams would be facing off again in the quarterfinals of Euro 2016. Not only have none of the Welsh players seen their country appear in a major tournament, most of their parents wouldn’t remember such an occasion, either.
It had, after all, been 58 years since Wales graced a big international stage. In that time, some exceptional players who won top prizes at club level, like Ryan Giggs, Ian Rush and Mark Hughes, had all been denied the chance to play at the highest level for their country.
This generation, led by Bale, the world’s most expensive player, has made that elusive breakthrough. That draw in Brussels precipitated three straight wins that all but secured Wales’ place in France. In the middle of the run came a result to top even that November night: beating a Belgian side, then ranked No. 2 in the world, 1-0 in Cardiff.
It is why of all the major teams Wales could have potentially faced in the Euro 2016 quarterfinals, Chris Coleman’s side is probably far from disappointed that it is a rematch with Belgium in Lille on Friday.
It is not just the fact that Wales took four points off of Belgium in qualifying that will give Coleman and his team confidence that their great run may not be done quite yet. Wales’ record in qualifying, beating Cyprus by a single-goal margin home and away and recording a goalless draw at home to Israel, and at this tournament, edging past Northern Ireland 1-0 in a dour round-of-16 clash, showed that breaking down defensive sides is not its forte.
Wales’ strength, as it showed against Belgium, is defending in numbers and striking on the break with the threat of Bale and Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey. As well as being Wales’ preferred strategy, it is one that Belgium does not relish going up against.
That was shown in the Red Devils’ opening game of Euro 2016, when going down to a far less talented Italy side, but one that was defensively and tactically excellent and ruthless on the break. In contrast, Belgium has looked best against teams that left themselves exposed to counterattacks. A 3-0 win over the Republic of Ireland kick-started its Euro 2016, before sweeping aside a Hungary side that was open to start with and only became more so as it chased the game, allowing Belgium three late goals in a 4-0 victory.
Allowing space to individuals of the quality of Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku is a recipe for disaster. But deny them that space and the lack of tactical nous of coach Marc Wilmots and his failure to build complex team structures can be exploited.
For both Belgium and Wales, with the knowledge that the winner will take on either Poland or Portugal for a place in the Euro 2016 final, there is a huge opportunity. But there is no doubt that the pressure weighs heaviest on the Belgians.
While this is the furthest the country has been in a European Championship since 1980, nobody in Belgium will be celebrating if this is as far as the team goes. Belgium’s golden generation of talent has been discussed and hyped up for several years, understandably so in a country that has long lived in the shadow of its Low Countries neighbor the Netherlands but can now boast a far stronger roster.
Yet after getting to the last eight of the 2014 World Cup and with its key players now in their primes or moving toward it, it is now time to start delivering at the sharp end of major tournaments. Anything other than a win over Wales would be a major letdown and could quite possibly spell the end for Wilmots. For Wales, victory on Friday would make everyone involved national heroes who will live long in the memory, in the same way as those who took on Brazil and Pele in the quarterfinals of the 1958 World Cup.
Prediction: If Belgium was to get an early goal and force Wales to come forward, then it could be a very comfortable night for Wilmots’ side. But every minute that breakthrough doesn’t arrive, Wales’ chances will grow. Belgium has been better since Wilmots moved De Bruyne to the No. 10 role, and Wales will have to be spot-on defensively in order to keep its opponent out. But the qualifying results showed that Wales can rise to the challenge. And with Bale embracing the role of team talisman, Wales could secure a famous victory.
Predicted score: Wales 1-0 Belgium
Betting Odds (via Oddschecker)
Belgium win: 8-11
Wales win: 5-1
Date: Friday, July 1
Time: 3 p.m. EDT