TOULOUSE: Wales enjoyed their greatest day in football for more than half a century by overwhelming Russia 3-0 on Monday to win Group B at Euro 2016 ahead of their oldest rivals England.
It was an outcome that had seemed unlikely when England beat them 2-1 last Thursday, and the thousands of Welsh supporters could have been forgiven for a feeling of disbelief as they celebrated every touch of the ball with “oles” before finally feeling free to chant “we are top of the league”.
They will play a third-placed team in Paris on Saturday while England face the Group F runners-up and Wales will go into the knockout stage with realistic hopes of reaching the last eight.
“It was never about beating England, it was about qualifying,” Wales manager Chris Coleman told reporters, adding that he had never seen a better performance from a Welsh team.
Russia, bottom of the standings with one point, obtained with an undeserved last-minute equaliser against England, go home with much to think about before they host the World Cup in two years time under a new coach.
The story of the night, however, was a Welsh one.
In what had been described as the country’s biggest game since the 1958 World Cup quarter-final, they rediscovered the attacking brio that enabled them to beat Slovakia in the opening game.
Gareth Bale, the scorer of a direct free kick in each of the two previous games to equal a European Championship record, was close with several fine efforts before becoming the first player since Milan Baros in 2004 to score in three successive games at the European finals.
He was outstanding in running at a Russian defence that allowed far too much space to him and Aaron Ramsey, breaking in support of Sam Vokes, the surprise selection in attack in place of Hal Robson-Kanu.
That defence was not helped by a revamped midfield being outplayed by Joe Ledley and the tigerish Joe Allen.
Russia survived an early Bale chance but were two goals down inside 20 minutes after strikes by Ramsey, named man of the match, and wing back Neil Taylor.
Bale made further chances for Vokes and Ramsey before the latter, Wales’ only other regular Champions League player, returned the compliment twice in the second half.
“We’ve topped the group which nobody probably saw coming,” Ramsey said.
“Our main target was to get out of the group. To finish top is a fantastic feeling.”
“It’s probably the best performance I’ve been involved in with Wales,” Bale added. -Reuters