The Great Adventure: Can Wales Reach The Euro 2016 Final?

July 06, 2016

- Grant Whittington

If you are a footballing romantic or mildly superstitious by nature, you probably harbour high hopes that Euro 2016 will yield a surprise winner. Denmark’s stunning success at Euro ’92 was followed by Greece’s incredible victory in Lisbon against tournament hosts Portugal in 2004, for example, and a further 12 years on we are primed for another outsider to lift the European Championship trophy.

While hosts France may have extinguished Iceland’s hope of success with a 5-2 win in their recent quarter-final, Chris Coleman’s Wales side continue to carry the flag for the underdog. In a year where 5000/1 shots Leicester City have won the Premier League and Atletico Madrid eliminated both Barcelona and Bayern Munich in the Champions League, the dragons have a genuine chance of succeeding in their first major tournament in 58 years.

How Wales Have Bridged The Gap

Wales will face Portugal in the Stade de Lyon on Wednesday, and on paper they would appear to be second favourites. The consistency and quality of the Welsh team have helped to bridge this perceived gap in pedigree, however, while Portugal’s underwhelming form has also levelled the playing field.

While the qualifying defeat to Albania offered a glimpse into the frailties that undermine the current Portuguese outfit, few could have expected that they would have reached this stage of the tournament without actually winning a game in normal time.

The contrasting, on-field fortunes of these two teams have been embodied by their star players, as while Cristiano Ronaldo has flattered to deceive Gareth Bale has been a constant threat in delivering three goals and one assist so far. Both are capable of winning a game with a single moment of brilliance, however, with Ronaldo’s two tournament goals to data having come in a game that Portugal could simply not afford to lose against Hungary in Group F.

Where the Battle Will Be Won And Lost

Given Portugal’s inconsistency, the incredible form of the Welsh team and the world class talent that both sides possess in attack, this is a game that is far closer than anyone would have anticipated at the beginning of the tournament. Even their defensive units are well matched, with the respective bodies of Ricardo Carvalho and Ashley Williams having harnessed the efforts of those around them throughout the tournament.

Both managers have also displayed excellent tactical awareness to progress this far, particularly in Wales’ defeat of Northern Ireland and Portugal’s narrow, second round win against a previously impressive Croatian side.

If there is to be a decisive component, it could well be the absence of Wales midfielder Aaron Ramsey. The Arsenal star has arguably been the player of the tournament so far, contributing four assists, boundless energy and one stunning goal. Ramsey has also exerted an influence across all areas of the pitch, reinforcing his reputation as a box-to-box midfielder while linking superbly with Gareth Bale. His suspension removes a core component from the Welsh game, and this could well tip the balance in a tight encounter.

Ramsey’s absence may be exacerbated by the presence of Portugal’s talented midfield starlet Renato Sanchis, who has grown into the tournament and performed superbly in the quarter-final clash with Poland. Boasting wonderful technique and a tremendous change of pace, he has the ability to drive at the Welsh defence and create space for players like Ronaldo and the enigmatic Nani. Without Ramsey’s presence and work-ethic, Sanchis may just have a little more time and space to affect the game.

Why this may be a game too far for Wales?

In a deceptively close game of such fine margins, a single injury, suspension or mistake can make all the difference. While Ramsey’s likely replacement Andy King will provide a willing replacement he lacks the Arsenal man’s class and this means that Wales may struggle to counter-attack with as much precision as they did against Belgium. The talismanic Gareth Bale could then become isolated, just as he did during the defeat against England, leaving the Welsh with a task that may just prove beyond them.

Unless Andy King can channel the spirit and energy of his club side Leicester, this may well be a game to far for Chris Coleman’s heroic Dragons.

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