Euro 2016: Wales keep champagne on ice but are in good shape to prosper at finals

Wales did not follow Robbie Savage's advice and lump  it long

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The Independent Online

With just a point required, and Andorra still to come to Cardiff, Welsh celebrations were only postponed, not cancelled, by Israel’s obdurate resistance. Indeed, the home hordes left hoping Belgium would slip up in Nicosia last night but Eden Hazard’s 86th-minute winner means the champagne stays on ice for another month.

Either way, this was a learning experience for Chris Coleman and his team. They are top 10 now, and teams will come to the Principality seeking a point rather than expecting to win. With nine outfielders behind the ball and time-wasting from the start, Israel’s intentions were clear. Full time was approaching before they even had an effort on goal.

Faced with this wall of white, Wales lacked a cutting edge. The best chances fell to Andy King rather than Gareth Bale as a bright start dissipated. However, there was another clean sheet for Ashley Williams’ defence, the fifth in succession this campaign. Come France 2016 that solidity will be invaluable if Wales are to emulate not just the heroes of 1958, but also 1976.

Amid all the talk of the 1958 World Cup quarter-finalists, and the near misses of 1978, 1986, 1994 and 2004, the Principality’s 1976 vintage has been largely forgotten. Maybe it is because their campaign ended in violence, with fans invading the pitch and throwing cans, but Mike Smith’s team is underappreciated.

Reaching France will not, despite what you may have read, make the Bale generation Wales’ most successful since the Charles and Allchurch brothers, and Jones cousins, went to Sweden – not yet anyway. Next summer’s finals features 24 teams. In 1976 Wales reached the last eight in Europe – but the finals featured only four teams.

Having topped their qualifying group, Wales faced Yugoslavia in a two-legged quarter-final. They lost 2-0 in Belgrade and 3-1 on aggregate, Terry Yorath’s missed penalty at Ninian Park the death knell. Yugoslavia went on to host a tournament won by  Czechoslovakia, another nation since erased.

That was a good team, featuring John Toshack, Leighton James and Brian Flynn. They did not have a Bale however, and under pressure their composure deserted them. The Rothmans Yearbook records of the second leg, “the passion of the occasion was ruffling any attempt to play to a pattern. Both sides flung themselves at man and ball, in that order… Wales lost control of the tie, and themselves.”

The game has changed since then, but not that much and teams can still get carried away by passion, throwing players forward with abandon in search of goals and diving recklessly into tackles.

Coleman’s Welsh team are not like that. In Nicosia on Thursday they played patient, composed football, happy to bide their time before snatching victory with a late goal. It was the same yesterday. They began with pace, but the passion was controlled. As “Men of Harlech” rolled around the stadium, Wales probed – pressing and passing rather than launching the ball forward from deep. They should have led after eight minutes, when both King and Aaron Ramsey spurned good opportunities, but they did not panic at the failure to score.

Even as frustration grew, they did not – despite Robbie Savage’s advice on radio – revert to lumping it long into the box like a lower division team of old. Bale does not play that way at Real Madrid, nor Ramsey at Arsenal, Williams at Swansea, even King at  Leicester. Wales are a modern team with technically accomplished players.

Israel were dull, but they were organised and disciplined. Wales, increasingly drained by the occasion and the effects of their trip to Cyprus, had few opportunities and were left to bemoan another rejected penalty appeal that further underlined how superfluous Uefa’s fifth official is. 

The false hope of Simon Church’s disallowed goal exacerbated the deflation of the final whistle, but this is not a tale to add to the litany of woe encompassing Joe Jordan’s handball, Paul Bodin’s missed penalty and much more. The draw, though disappointing, is only damaging to the publicans of St Mary Street. “Cookie” Coleman’s red army can instead save their cash  for the boulevards and brasseries across the Bristol and English Channels.

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