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Saturday, 13 June 2015 11:38

An unforgettable night in Cardiff

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FRIDAY 12th JUNE: Cardiff City Stadium - humid, wet
WALES 1 BELGIUM 0 (UEFA Euro 2016 Qualifying)
Mid June and, marooned between the two football seasons, there's a sudden flurry of football activity in Cardiff this weekend. For most people, the big event is this crucial Euro 2016 qualifying match (although the minds of two local clubs are bound to be on another match, less than 24 hours later - but more of that tomorrow).

Expectations ahead of the visit of Belgium have probably been higher than at any time in recent years. Wales, unbeaten at the halfway stage of their group, joint top with Belgium, and radiating belief and togetherness, two qualities not always present in our national set-up. The nation senses something has changed and that something big is about to happen and the build-up to this game has been big, on all broadcast and social media.

So big, perhaps, that people are starting to talk as if Wales are favourites - to beat a team officially ranked second in the world. The Welsh football public is in uncharted territory here - we're used to despair, dejection and embarrassment - we know how to handle those. Hope is trickier: seasoned fans bear the mental scars of having hoped before, and are wary.... and yet, when you think you've put it in its place, hope creeps back in - could this really be different ?

Realistically, what do the 33,000 fans making their way to Cardiff City Stadium expect ? They've heard about the spirit in the Welsh camp, they've heard how important the fans' vocal support is, and they expect the team to give as much as they will themselves. But probably most would settle for a draw, not to lose, to stay level with Belgium at the top of the group.

Pre-match, inside the stadium, maybe the occasion and the atmosphere is intense - hints of the carnival everyone would like it to be, but with so much tension that it can't, because the next couple of hours can be a definitive point for a generation of footballers and fans. It's this that overshadows the entertainment - the Super Furry Animals appearing at one corner during the warm up, playing a few numbers and disappearing without making much impact. It's not until the anthems that the spine starts to tingle - or more accurately our anthem, led rather well by Sophie Evans.

And then the match starts: the Welsh support gives full voice, but the first fifteen minutes are nervy. Belgium threaten, Wales makes some early errors, the referee gives Belgium a couple of borderline decisions, and we long for something more than the odd breakaway into the visitors' territory. The Belgian fans, noisy in their corner of the ground, seem confident.

But then, Wales seem to settle, looking comfortable in passing the ball patiently, Bale starting to prompt attacks. One or two decisions go our way. One such, on the left wing, allows Ramsey to float a 25th minute free-kick into the box and puts the Belgian goal under threat; just as it seems to have been cleared, visiting defender Nainggolan rashly heads back towards his keeper, but Bale has lingered and receives the gift, slotting the ball under the keeper. 1-0, out of the blue.

The goal changes the complexion of the game: Wales have gained confidence, and are able to play some quite fluent passing football. The crowd have moved up another gear, roaring encouragement, and the whole situation seems to be getting to the visitors, who at times - dare we think it ? - look a little ragged. They still have plenty of possession, but create less danger. In fact, Wales come closest to another goal before half time, a chaotic episode leading up to a shot that Robson-Kanu maybe should have got on target.

Half time brings a chance for everyone to take a breather: the fans are still tense, acknowledging that the next 45 minutes will seem like an eternity. After the break, with Wales still containing and frustrating the visitors, the Welsh fans start to go through their repertoire in most impressive, and affecting, style: Men of Harlech, Ar Hyd Y Nos, I Love You Baby and, best of all, a superb rendition of Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau with 20 minutes to go.

After this, Belgium seem more desperate, their fans' belief ebbing away. There are some late scares for Wales, a few wayward passes, a dangerous free-kick, but everything is dealt with, Wayne Hennessey exuding confidence in the Welsh goal and Ashley Williams rock-solid in the centre of defence, always available as a passing option for any team-mate under pressure. The 90 minutes, plus the four added, tick away, and in the closing minutes every clearance, every catch by Hennessey, are cheered to the rafters. The whistle goes - Wales have won !

Read 3427 times Last modified on Sunday, 21 June 2015 20:19

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